Starring: Robert Redford, Wilford Brimley, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Richard Farnsworth, Darren McGavin, Glenn Close, Robert Prosky, Michael Madsen, Barbara Hershey
Rated PG (probably for Brief Violence and a Scene of Mild Sexuality)
It would be interesting to know why movies about baseball seem to be all about the nostalgia. Take "The Sandlot," for example. Or "Field of Dreams." I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it's because it's known as "America's Game." Who knows.
Roy Hobbs (Redford) is a savant when it comes to baseball. Able to hit, pitch or catch any ball without fail, he's a natural for the sport. Nurtured by his father, Roy becomes a prodigy and is well on his way to the majors as he leaves his small town life behind him. But a run-in with a hotshot known as "The Slammer" (Joe Don Baker in a cameo) and treacherous fan derails his plans. Sixteen years later, he's back and has put his past behind him. He's playing for the Knights, a team so bad that they have become a national joke. When Pop (Brimley), the team manager, finally starts playing him, their fortunes turn around. That's a problem for The Judge (Prosky), who co-owns the team, since he signed a contract with Pop that could cause him to lose all his shares in the Knights. Which begs the question why he'd bother since they're so awful, but that's a question you don't ask in a movie like this.
Nostalgia-fueled movies like "The Natural" are all about the manipulation. I like manipulative movies that take my emotions and cause them to soar or sink as the film depends on it, provided it's done well. Sadly, despite the somewhat reliable name of Barry Levinson on the marquee, that's not what happens. Odd directing choices, a script in need of rewrites, and a miscast lead limit the film's effect.
Robert Redford's appeal has always been his intelligence and effortless charm. So to have him play an emotionally withdrawn simpleton is odd. Redford is an appealing actor and filmmaker, but he never becomes Roy Hobbs. It's a hurdle that the film never overcomes. He's surrounded by a cast of big name talent, but they're only adequate at best. Kim Basinger is flat as the "bad luck" girl that Roy falls for; she looks the part, but she rarely convinces. Robert Duvall is stuck playing a character that Levinson doesn't know what to do with. He plays Max Mercy, a sports journalist who pops up every now and then to ask questions, but his character doesn't really contribute to the plot in any real way. Either more or less of him was needed. The one actor who does bear mentioning is Robert Prosky. Known for playing kindly old men, he plays a villain who's malice gives Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life" a run for his money.
Storywise, the film is oddly constructed. There's too much going on, and while pulling out all the stops in the melodrama department is more or less a necessity for a movie like this, for the most part Levinson wants the film to be more realistic. Achieving the nostalgia factor is difficult, and Levinson doesn't hit the sweet spot.
Ultimately, I'm not recommending "The Natural" because the film is a bore. It's just not compelling to watch Roy Hobbs try to lead his team to victory. I never bought his character, and as a result I didn't buy into his story. It's a shame because I wanted to like it. Nostalgia always holds a special place in my movie-loving heart.