Robert Redford is beloved for his roles in numerous films, but his work in The Natural has to rank as one of the few on top, despite the fact that, with a $48 million box office, it hardly ranks as one of his bigger hits.
The film remains, next to Field of Dreams, one of the world’s oddest baseball movies. Roy Hobbs (Redford) is a child wunderkind at the game. After playing some ball at a carnival, he’s summarily shot in the chest by a femme fatale (Barbara Hershey), who is clearly working for agents that want him not to be the greatest player of all time, which Hobbs says he aims to be.
Flash forward to a decade or so later, and Hobbs is seen, er, hobbling onto the baseball diamond as a New York Knight. He’s a grandpa by normal standards, but eventually they relent and give him a chance, and soon Hobbs is smashing impossible homers with his homemade bat, which Hobbs carved himself from a lightning-struck tree. Will Hobbs overcome pain and adversity to lead the loser Knights to the championship? In a movie this filled with melodrama, you better believe it, and that’s just the beginning of the emotional rollercoaster that The Natural has on tap for us.
Jammed full with cliches, The Natural never misses a chance to manipulate the audience, whether giving Hobbs a suddenly life-threatening illness or introducing a son that he never knew he had. A parade of scary women run through the film: Both Kim Basinger and Glenn Close (who inexplicably earned an Oscar nomination) are borderline ghoulish here, with Close (as his childhood sweetheart) almost invariably bathed in ghostly light while offering minimal dialogue.
And yet, despite its many flaws, The Natural is quite watchable. How it became a cult classic remains a mystery, but it’s something that goes down easy, even it the aftertaste is bitter. Chalk it up to Redford, who gives Hobbs a real heart and soul that we almost care about. As for the story, eh, an Aesop’s fable would have had the same effect.
Director Barry Levinson (no stranger to schlock) serves up an extended director’s cut which doesn’t seem to change much aside from adding more footage: The infamous cheesy ending remains the same, for example. An entire second disc of featurettes rounds out the selection.