IN A MIDWESTERN wheatfield, a small sandy-haired boy plays baseball with his father. Reaching into the air to catch a fly ball, he disappears into the rippling sunflecked wheat, emerging victoriously with the ball in his mitt. This visual image opens director Barry Levinson's new film, The Natural, and initiates the almost mythical tale of one man's legendary baseball career.
This tall tale, based on Bernard Malamud's short story, utilizes many simplistic techniques--good and evil characters, sunlight and darkness, and slow motion--to heighten dramatic moments. Instead of creating painfully drippy scenes, these techniques suprisingly enhance them. Levinson succeeds in creating a visually beautiful, riveting and distinctly American fairy-tale.
The film describes the career of a promising young baseball player in the early 1920s whose glorious future is seemingly shattered in a brutal event. The player, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) returns to baseball 16 years later to play for the last place, bumbling New York Knights. The story is one of Hobbs' spectacular comeback, his momentary rise, agonizing crash, and heroic reemergence.
This simple plot is enhanced by the colorful and symbolic figures that influence Hobbs' quest. There is his grumpy yet loveable coach, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), whom the audience first encounters in the Knights' dugout patiently watching his clumsy ball players and screaming about the rusty water from the water fountain. Pop Fisher needs a break, and when Robert Redford saunters into the pit, reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the audience feels a thrill of excitement at the predictable future of the Knights.
Besides Hobbs' paternal coach and his affectionate teamates are the not-so-nice characters--the owner of the Knights, the nefarious "Judge" (Robert Prosky) who, like a bat, prefers darkness to light. There is also the spooky bookie, Darren McGavin, who gazes at the golden-boy Hobbs with his glass eye. Finally there is the slimy but comic sports reporter who crawls after Hobbs attempting to expose him for a big scoop.
The women in Levinson's film either disrupt Hobbs' career or propel him towards success. But perhaps it is this enormous power they have on his life that lifts them from mere accessories to almost magical superhumans. When Hobbs and the Knights are on a sudden losing streak, Roy's hometown sweetheart (Glenn Close) comes to one of his games after not having seen him in years. Dressed in white, standing next to hundreds of almost darkened fans, she stands up in the stands as Hobbs waits for the ball after two strikes. In this make-it-or-break-it moment, he notices Close, immersed in sunlight that makes her white hat look like a halo. Although people don't usually attend games dressed completely in white, nor would it seem likely that Hobbs would notice her alone among thousands of fans, the image is somehow more enchanting than trite.
LEVINSON'S SPECTACULAR use of light makes the film truly magnificent--light that creeps into darkened rooms, the moonlight that illuminates the expansive midwestern farmland or even the bright glare in the stadium. This light in fuses many scenes in a breathtaking moments transports possibly melodramatic moments into fantasy. And Redford as Hobbs gives the film its American epic quality. Redford plays the store and wholesome Hobbs wonderfully. Oddly enough, Redford does not have many lines or verbally revealing moments. In fact, the screenplay is one of the film's weakest points. Yet it is Redford's captivating screen presence and his seemingly perceptive and honest gaze that allow him to maintain credibly a surprising heroical stance. The film relies on the unspoken, the power of lovely images and an excellent soundtrack. Redford is ideal for the part of the persevering stoic hero, among the other features of the film.
Levinson has directed The Natural deftly, continuing the success of his first film, Diner, but utilizing a more expansive space. He coordinates scenes, particulary the baseball scenes, expertly, and although almost always predictable, they are all nevertheless exhilarating.