Thursday, July 30, 2020

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: THE NATURAL

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who are feeling a little unnatural.

Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Baseball is back! As the MLB begins its sixty-game sprint through an abbreviated season, we’re taking a look at one of the most celebrated sports movies in history, Barry Levinson’s The Natural (1984). Based on the 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, it’s the story of farm boy Roy Hobbs’ (Robert Redford) delayed road to Major League stardom. Sixteen years after being shot in the abdomen as a young prospect, a weathered Hobbs signs a rookie contract with the basement-dwelling New York Knights. Manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) are baffled by the signing, but Hobbs soon proves his worth with his hot bat and Aw Shucks charisma. As his star rises, he catches the eye of Pop’s niece (Kim Basinger as Memo Paris) and gets caught up in a scheme by Knights co-owner The Judge (Robert Prosky) to tank the season and take over sole ownership of the team. With the soul of the game on the line, Hobbs will also have to come to terms with his checkered past and reconcile with his childhood sweetheart, Iris (Glenn Close).

This will sound blasphemous to many, but I think The Natural is just okay. Sure, it’s romantic about baseball in a way I think we both appreciate, but its story threads are so bare in some places — and completely disconnected in others — that it’s hard to be totally invested in anything as it ramps to its conclusion. The problem, I think, is in the presentation of Hobbs as a character. After the opening sequence, we’re reintroduced to a mid-thirties man who refuses to discuss his past. He comes from nowhere and doesn’t want to share anything. Great. What happened after the hotel room? What happened to his family? Why did his relationship with Iris fade away? What did he do in the period after his injury? What brought him back to baseball? There’s a difference between mystery and intrigue, and The Natural misses the opportunity to invest us in Hobbs as a person as he begins his journey and, as a result, we’re largely held at a remove from his character as he reacts to the things happening around him. When we finally get to the core character decisions — whether or not to take a bribe and/or play with a potentially fatal injury — neither choice feels particularly motivated by anything we’ve seen or heard from him before.
And look, it isn’t my intent to provide a hot take on a forty-year-old classic. I understand why The Natural is beloved. It’s big and lyrical and idealistic in all the ways it should be. I’ve seen it before, and I’ll see it again. But we’ve watched much, much better baseball movies in this series, and I have to evaluate them all with the same criteria. Also, what is Kim Basinger doing in this movie? She’s kind of a femme fatale, but kind of not? Same for our friend, Bob Duvall. Why take this role? And what’s going on with Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), the silver bullet athlete killer? Why is Hobbs threatened by his past with her coming to light? Because he could be held responsible for her death? She targeted tons of other athletes! She put a bullet in his stomach! Is he nervous that Iris will find out he went to her hotel room? How about Michael Madsen dying after running through the centerfield wall? This stuff is so distracting! You’d better take over for a bit.

Adam: The Michael Madsen death is so weird. It’s cut like a joke.

Rob: I honestly thought that it would be revealed that Basinger’s character killed him, or something. I guess that would have distracted from all the nothing that was going on.

Adam: This was my first viewing of The Natural. It’s a movie I’ve been avoiding because of my Robert Redford allergy. He’s my least favorite actor, I’m sorry to say (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the exception). I think he’s a great advocate for cinema and I have no problems with the man personally. I’m talking specifically about his performances. I just don’t like the guy. I audibly groan even when he’s standing still. It’s an enormous bias when viewing something like The Natural, so it’s only fair I cop to that right away. I had in my head what this movie was and in this case, I was kind of right. It feels like a vanity project even though Redford didn’t direct.

Now that all that is out of the way, I have some things to praise about The Natural. On a craft level, it’s great. The score by Randy Newman is justifiably adored. It’s iconic and part of the language of baseball. The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is exquisite. The costumes and production design are top-notch, too. The movie is filled with actors I like, including Robert Duvall, Richard Farnsworth, Michael Madsen, Mike Starr, and many more. On a gut level, though, something is off. You touched on some of those reasons already. I don’t mind that the movie is unrealistic and more aimed as a tall tale. I can remove myself from that. What I can’t get over though is Roy Hobbs is a big nothing of a character even though we’re following him the entire movie. This would make more sense if the focal character was a reporter or someone trying to crack what makes the guy tick.
Rob: What’s amazing is that the reporter character is right there! It’s Bob Duvall! But then the movie does nothing with him.

Adam: The movie sets up the entire middle section like a mystery of what happened to Roy Hobbs, but we already know what happened to Roy Hobbs. He got shot. And he carries guilt over it? Why? He didn’t do anything wrong! Redford’s performance doesn’t help. It’s all stoic idolatry. Until he starts sniping back around the middle part of the movie, I was wondering if he was lacking intelligence like Forrest Gump. We’re supposed to fawn over this man when every other character in this movie is more interesting. I say this without exaggeration. I would rather see four other characters be the focus of this movie over Roy Hobbs (Duvall, Brimley, Madsen, and especially Barbara Hershey).

Rob: 100%.

Adam: As you said earlier, it gives me no pleasure to crap on a well-liked movie. I found some strands here and there interesting, like Glenn Close’s line about how we spend half of our life learning lessons and the other half in reaction to that. I just am not a fan overall of The Natural. If you are reading this and are bummed or upset, don’t be. You won. You like the movie!

Are you a Barry Levinson guy overall? What are some of your favorites of his? Does he have an identity for you as a filmmaker? The Natural is pretty polished for a guy making just his second feature.

Rob: I like a few of his movies (though I’d hesitate to call any of them a favorite), but he’s always struck me as a workman-like guy who occasionally edges into prestige territory. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does get in the way of me developing a real opinion on his directorial voice.

You mentioned earlier that you didn’t mind when a movie like this is less than realistic, which I agree with, but The Natural forces me to ask a few questions. Is Pop the manager AND the team’s co-owner? I mean, it’s not totally outside the realm of possibility, but baseball teams know...expensive. Why is he still managing? And what’s going on with Hobbs going right from semi-pro to the Majors? He doesn’t get a single MiLB at bat first? I understand this is from a different period of baseball history (punctuated by Pop’s threat to send Hobbs down to “Class B ball”), but there isn’t a single Major League team that needs a right fielder that bad.
And yes, I understand it’s a movie. Story economy, and all that. But here’s my question: Is it a baseball movie’s responsibility to adhere to realism? Are baseball fanatics like you or I justified in asking the questions I just asked? Is it fair that our enjoyment of The Natural can be affected by some radically insane breach in baseball norms? It’s a big question, and one that could certainly also be asked of scientists, military personnel, doctors, and members of every other profession inaccurately depicted on screen.

Adam: I think us being such big baseball fans only hurts us watching baseball movies. The best ones for me focus on the characters and maybe a scene or two of idolizing baseball (like in A League of Their Own), but it’s not the end all be all. The “bad” baseball movies I think are preaching to the choir and pushing easy buttons. When you plant that “baseball movie for baseball fans” flag, it forces people like you and I to focus on the bullshit test with the movie’s details. In The Natural, it doesn’t bother me too much because there’s a moment super early in the movie where Hobbs makes a bat out of a tree that was struck by lightning. At that point, I say “Ok, this is a fantasy.” This movie is so unrealistic that I (at the closest point I was to liking the movie) questioned if Hobbs is supposed to represent baseball purity itself in one human being and everything else are the elements trying to corrupt the sanctity of baseball. This feeling was fleeting, however, because there’s too much that is an outlier to that theory, like Roy’s son which is an undercooked late development.

It isn’t all bad. The finale is good cinema. I just can’t connect with it overall like I can with the best sports movies like Rocky or The Karate Kid (1984). Anything else on The Natural?

Rob: Nothing productive. I’m still mad at this movie for giving me a taste of Michael Madsen and then snatching him away.

Adam: He’s immediately interesting.

Rob: I’ll just close by saying that I understand we’ll get a lot of pushback on this one. A lot of people love The Natural. That’s awesome. Like what you like. To me, it’s just one of those movies that’s best seen (and left) in a person’s youth. What are we talking about next week?

Adam: Speaking of a person’s youth, we’re revisiting Monsters Inc. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. I was wondering what you baseball lovers thought about The Natural! I saw it for the first time not too long ago, too. I was unimpressed. Yet, like you, just accepted that this movie is for other people, and maybe another time.

    I am such a giant fan of A League of Their Own that I feel like THAT only hurts me when watching other baseball movies and even real life baseball games. No sisterhood, no cool pink uniforms/makeup/fluffy hairdos, no Hans Zimmer, no grouchy Tom Hanks.

    I also thought Michael Madsen was the most interesting part of The Natural, ha! This movie seemed somehow like the most old fashioned movie I've ever watched. Like a whiskey commercial or something. So little story but so many halo lights around the characters.

    Sorry if this is not the point of the movie, which I get - I just couldn't help noticing how there's such a clear cut "evil sexy woman" and "pure angel woman" presented. Like black and white outfits included. Just made it feel more old fashioned. I didn't hate it or anything, though. Cheers to everyone who loves it.

  2. I have never liked this film, finding it pretentious tripe. Many critics at the time were less than enthralled: John Simon, Roger Ebert, and Richard Shickel, to name three. When it was released, many people were disappointed that the filmmakers changed the book’s ending. If the reason the whole film is so... strange is because it is meant as an allegory— what is it an allegory FOR?

  3. But, it gave us such a great episode of The Simpson, how can it be that bad... jk

    I actually never saw the movie, and i don't think i will now