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USA 1984
Directed by
Barry Levinson
134 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Natural The (Director’s Cut)

The sports movie with its zero-to-hero redemptive trajectory is one of the most tightly constrained of Hollywood templates. Barry Levinson's take on it displays plenty of the genre’s typical features and doesn’t refuse its sentimentalizing tendencies but it is an unusually sophisticated example with a multi-layered story and a decidedly literary refinement. No doubt a good deal of this is due to the fact that it is based on a novel by Bernard Malamud (albeit considerably modified) but as a production it demonstrates a impressive fidelity to its general subject matter, the heyday of baseball in America. As such, even if you have no interest in baseball or even sports in general, the film stands up.

Robert Redford play Roy Hobbs, a young hot-shot provincial baseball player about to crack the big league when his life takes an unexpected turn and his dreams fall to pieces.  Sixteen years later he’s on the come-back trail.

Hobbs is a hero of legendary proportions – a bold young knight with a near-magic sword, here a bat, called ‘Wonderboy’ and emblazoned with the image o a lightning bolt. After being shot (with a silver bullet!) he disappears into obscurity to re-emerge and redeem his sense of self by doing inspirational deeds, to whit turning around the fortunes of  the New York Knights, a team languishing in the doldrums and headed by grumpy old cliché, here manager, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) and his folksy assistant (Richard Farnsworth). Like all good heroes, to achieve his goal he must withstand temptations (principally in the form of Kim Basinger’s blonde siren, the improbably named, Memo Paris), hostile guardians (Robert Duvall’s sports-writer, Max Mercy) and dirty dealings behind the scenes (thanks to Robert Prosky’s crooked club owner and Darren McGavin's gambler/ fixer).  Will he stay true to his roots and vindicate himself or will he fail? Wait, there’s divine inspiration on its way in the form of a diaphanous former girl-friend (Glenn Close),

If this sounds rather dire, it is actually done very well in all departments, the result being a film that offsets the cheaply sentimentalizing tendencies of the typical sports movie with a palpable sense of old-fashioned heroics.  That this reflects just the kind of sensibility that would have made sense at the time in which the film is set makes it doubly effective, even if things like Bump Bailey’s convenient demise and Hobb’s “exploding” stomach seem unnecessarily cursory plot devices.

FYI:  The director’s cut which has about 20 minutes of new footage is about 6 minutes longer than the original theatrical release and includes the originally intended opening.

 

 

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