Whole grain bread, tempeh, and alfalfa sprouts...that's what I like on my "natural" sandwich. Mmm. Judge Harold Gervais turns a warm eye toward this modern classic about the game of baseball, or as those wacky Brits call it, baseball.
Say it ain't so Roy. Say it ain't so.
Based on the 1952 novel, his first, by author Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) is Barry Levinson's film version of The Natural.
One of my most eagerly anticipated catalogue titles, Columbia has put together an interesting disc that has one of the best documentary features I have seen on any release in quite some time. There may be no commentary track or deleted scenes, but The Natural does possess the virtue of having picture and sound that is light years ahead of what was previously available. It is for those above reasons that I recommend this disc to film fans as well as baseball fans everywhere.
Facts of the Case
Roy Hobbs is a young man with everything in front of him. He has more God-given talent than most baseball players can dream of and the love of his childhood sweetheart waiting for him back home. On the way to Chicago and a chance at his destiny, Roy is suddenly undone by a weakness he never knew existed and one he was tragically unequipped to deal with. For many these events would be an end but for Roy it is a beginning we are left to imagine.
Cut forward sixteen years and an older Roy Hobbs has finally broken down the door to his fondest dreams. After years of trying he has arrived in the big leagues. Granted, it is for a team as hopeless as the New York Knights, but finally Roy's time seems to have come. Leading the team with a wisdom created by years of hardship and a powerful bat of his own creation, Roy finds he must once more face the enemy that held him back so long ago. It is the one true thing for which Roy has no defense and the thing is Roy himself.
Fighting time, his health and the woman thinks he must have, Roy sets out to prove that he is indeed all he thinks he is and what he can become. Roy needs to decide if he is going to follow his heart down the path of glory or self-destruction. He must discover if he is going to be a footnote in baseball history; a mere flash-in-the-pan or will he become Roy Hobbs, The Natural?
Over the years, the subject of sports has always been one that fascinates filmmakers to no end, and it is really not that hard to understand why. Taking whatever sport available and using it as a metaphor for life almost always provides an interesting framework from which to build a movie and to tell a compelling story. Of all major sports, baseball seems to be the one that has had the greatest success over the years in the world of cinema; this too is also not hard to figure out. Out of the major American sports, baseball is the most mythic and the one that is the most larger than life. After all, it is America's favorite pastime and the exploits of its most famous, as well as infamous players are the stuff of legend. In many ways it is two sports in one, each important and compelling on their own, but when combined, the sum total is magical. On one hand, it is a very technical game in which every play can be documented and catalogued, yet, at its best, the sport transcends these cold, hard numbers and achieves a level of power, beauty and elegance that leaves all other sports behind. It is a game of patience and gut instinct. It is a sport that combines the best aspects of one-on-one competition but is also very much a team sport. It is this basic duality that probably interests writers and lovers of the game so very much. It is the epic and the small that are on parade here in The Natural, and the film is sure-handed in presenting both aspects of the tale.
If you look at The Natural in a larger sense, you see the aspect of the ball player as mythical warrior very much on display. In legend, these mythical warriors went into battle with their sword and their crossbow. In The Natural, Roy Hobbs proudly carries his trusty bat. Appropriately called "Wonder Boy," the bat was hand carved by Roy out of a piece of wood from a tree that was struck by lightning. It is with Wonder Boy in his hands that Hobbs manages to deal out his own thunder clap with every mighty swing. Also like the heroes of myth, Roy Hobbs has his own weakness. Like Samson, his downfall can always be traced back to a woman. It is the attention of a woman that put Roy down for 16 years because of her belief that Roy Hobbs truly was going to be the best that ever played the game. For her, robbing the world of his future exploits gives her the trophy she craved, not at all unlike Delilah having in her hand Samson's famous curly locks.
The second woman does something much worse to Roy than just shooting him. She manages to take away the purity that fuels his greatness and in the process cuts off his manhood. As this relationship grows, Roy's skill on the field of battle weakens and his mighty bat becomes impotent. It is only through the destruction of his bat and the appearance of Roy's one true love (bringing with her the son Roy never knew he had) that he is able to once more achieve his greatness with a crushing swing of his bat that literally blows out every light in the stadium.
It is with these broad strokes that director Barry Levinson (Diner, Avalon) paints his little sports epic. Little in terms that this is a very personal story of Roy's youthful expectation, told in the fashion of a memory flashback so that all of Redford's wrinkles don't look too out of place on a teenaged kid, to his eventual rise from the brink of disgrace and finding that the happiness he always wanted was right where he left it. The movie is epic in the fashion with which Levinson, along with cinematographer Caleb Deshanel (The Right Stuff), constructs the film with its sweeping vistas of baseball stadiums and farmland. There is little doubt that this is a big budget Hollywood affair, and the film has that soft glow that looks back to a simpler time in movies. Yet, as hard as Levinson and screenwriters Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry push the sentimentality button, The Natural never manages to stray too far. Characters and motivations ring true as the film runs a brisk 138 minutes. In addition to the screenplay, the movie is held together by the great performances of its all-star cast and by the soaring score of Randy Newman (Toy Story, Ragtime). One of the greatest and most often heard film scores of the last quarter century, it is marvelous to go back and listen to it once more in its original home. Like the popular themes of John Williams, this is music that sets a precise tone, continues to remain fresh, and one that stays long in the memory.
On a performance level this movie is proof that sometimes star power is exactly what a movie needs. With Robert Redford (The Sting, All The President's Men) as Roy Hobbs, we get one of Hollywood's most enduring stars delivering one of his most complex and detailed performances. If age does bring wisdom, it also brings a heightened use of their talent. As Hobbs, Redford brings a wistful quality that serves the film well. Finally at the brink of everything he has always dreamed about, Hobbs still faces his own demons that Redford shows make Hobbs merely human instead of a baseball demigod. With The Natural, we get Redford's last truly great performance and one that stands proudly with the other achievements of his long career.
I mentioned this was a big Hollywood movie, and it boasts some of Hollywood's best talent from the period. Robert Duvall (Network, M*A*S*H) is around as the venal sports writer Max Mercy. As always, Duvall turns in quality work. We may have seen him do stuff like this before and since, but he certainly does it well. Glenn Close (Reversal of Fortune, Fatal Attraction) turns up in an early screen role as Roy's one true and pure love, Iris Gaines. Close is one of our country's best actresses, but I'm afraid she is rather wasted here. The screenplay paints all of its female characters rather broadly, and Iris is the blandest of the bunch. With so little to work with, Close does the best she can and it can be said that she more than holds her own. Kim Basinger (Never Say Never Again, L.A. Confidential) shows once more that she had a thing for older leading men early in her career, and certainly she serves her main purpose in the screenplay: she looks really good. As the lady in black, Barbara Hershey (The Stunt Man, Hoosiers) barely has any screen time to make a real lasting impression other than she looked so much better before her lip job. Wilford Brimley (The Thing, The China Syndrome) is here as the manager of the hapless New York Giants and uncle to the Basinger character. A man of great dignity and pride, Brimley proves there was so much more to him than hawking Quaker Oats and doing that really bad television show with Deirdre Hall. [Editor's Note: and a very young pre-"90210" Shannon Doherty!] His performance is quite marvelous and adds a real touch of class to the movie. It is this touch of class that is matched by the work of the late, great Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story, Misery) as Brimley's trusty assistant manager, Red. Long one of the greatest pleasures in movie viewing, Farnsworth could express more with a glance than most actors do in a lifetime. Every time I see him now I realize what a wonderful actor we lost when he took his own life. Behind the scene bad guys are ably portrayed by Robert Prosky (Dead Man Walking, Thief), and in a uncredited role, one of my favorite actors, Darren McGavin (A Christmas Story, " Kolchak: The Night Stalker") turns up to great effect.
The Natural is a Columbia disc, so it is anamorphic and presented in its original aspect ratio, here 1.85:1. The presentation is overall a pleasant one. Colors appear natural, but there is the occasional instance of flesh tones looking a little off. Blacks possess a great deal of depth and detail. The image is somewhat soft, but that looks to be the way the film was made so I really can't knock off points for that. The image also displays occasional instances of pixel breakup, but on the plus side, edge enhancement is held to a minimum. The print used has a certain amount of dirt to it and there are some imperfections such as nicks and the like. Overall though it's an above-average transfer that still manages to retire my old VHS. Just don't go in expecting perfection and you won't be disappointed.
There are two sound options for us English language fanatics, and they are a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround as well as a 4.0 option. 4.0 is simply the way to go. It is with the 4.0 mix that Randy Newman's amazing score is given a greater stage. The music has much more space to breathe and literally fills the room. Dialogue is well integrated and clearly heard, with the combination of the two providing an excellent listening experience. The soundtrack master seems to have been in good shape, as there is little trace of any kind of background distortions or hiss. A solid job from the sound department.
In another case of a studio underselling their own product and not tooting their own horn, The Natural has a really wonderful documentary that I found to be a great surprise. Featuring director Barry Levinson and Baltimore Orioles great, Cal Ripken, Jr., the feature looks at The Natural through a real life natural's eyes. His insights, as well as those of Levinson, make for an excellent 45 minutes. It is this kind of supplemental material that Columbia excels at and something other studios (hello Paramount and MGM!) could learn a thing or two from.
The disc is rounded out by theatrical trailers, talent files, and production notes. The cover jacket lists "original source material," which I would assume means there are excerpts from Bernard Malamud's novel, but after much searching I could not find them anywhere on the disc or via any of the menus.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No real problems with the movie. It is one of my favorite sports movies and my favorite baseball movie, although Bull Durham comes in a close second. Performances are strong across the board and Randy Newman's excellent score has never sounded better in my home. As a disc I had some slight reservations with the video but as noted above they are fairly minor. The documentary is excellent, but I would have loved a commentary track or at the very least an isolated music track. I'm also willing to bet there are tons of deleted scenes lying around somewhere, and it would have been great to see some of that footage as well. Still, I'm not really complaining. Little by little all those movies that I have been waiting for are making their way to DVD and for me, The Natural is a big one.
All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the treatment afforded The Natural on DVD. If you have never seen The Natural, do yourself a favor and give it a rental. If you already know and love the movie, well, Columbia has done right by fans of it. No problems here recommending this disc for a solid purchase, and with opening day 2001 a few hours away from the writing of this review, I can't think of a better movie for this time of year.
Can we all say acquitted? The kind of movie that Hollywood seems to no longer make, The Natural features top drawer stars, excellent direction and a moving storyline. One of this judge's favorite sports movies, The Natural is required viewing for anyone who loves the game of baseball and the myth behind the sport.
Columbia is once more thanked for excellent service to DVD fans everywhere.
The courtroom stands in recess. Go Cubs!
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Scales of Justice
• Exclusive Documentary Featuring Cal Ripken, Jr. and Barry Levinson
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