The Natural is a strange one. It’s a cheap success. The story is incredibly simple–you have the golden-haired hero and the evil monster who lives in the dark–and looking for anything more will leave one wanting. Even though the film taps into the baseball mythos, it’s superficial. The Natural is the superhero movie Robert Redford never made… there’s no question of his morality, his loyalty, his ability. Watching the movie is about enjoying what the movie does. The scenes of Redford knocking the ball out of the park aren’t supposed to come as surprises, they’re supposed to be Hollywood magic. And for the most part, they are.
For his second feature, Barry Levinson is perfect–just like his first–capturing the film’s era. He’s not so perfect at capturing or creating the wonderment. There are some problems. The biggest is the opening, with Redford playing twenty at fifty (or forty-nine)–only two years younger than co-star Wilford Brimley–while Redford playing thirty-six is digestible (he has had a bullet in his stomach for sixteen years), the opening flashbacks are distracting and might have done better just as voiceovers. But Levinson also isn’t able to direct those scenes, the mythic scenes. He lacks the visual imagination for it. Levinson is, always–no matter how much gloss he puts on it–a realistic director and mythic scenes are beyond him here. Randy Newman’s score doesn’t help in these scenes either and really should. Newman’s score is half perfect and half off. It’s good throughout, but he’s supposed to be whacking the viewer in the ears, filling he or she with a double serving of wonderment, richer than any cheesecake. And he comes close enough to show he could have, but doesn’t.
Some of those problems–the Newman score–suggest the filmmakers were going for something a little deeper. There are certainly suggestions of it. The scene where, when talking about his father, all Redford can say is, “I love baseball,” or the scenes with Glenn Close. In some ways, the most ambitious–as a real film–The Natural gets is when it’s deliberating on these two people picking up with each other after so long. It’s great stuff, it just doesn’t pay off in the end. What pays off in the end is sparkling rain and the hero victorious.
All the performances are good (except, obviously, Michael Madsen). Redford in particular, though Brimley and Richard Farnsworth are both excellent as well. As the nefarious villains, Robert Prosky, Darren McGavin and Kim Basinger show why being campy isn’t always a bad thing. Robert Duvall is a little disappointing too, I guess, playing a far too two-dimensional character. Close manages to play a grown-up dream girl, which was probably either a lot easier or a lot harder than it looks.
The film’s a little too clean, a little too long in places and a little too short in others, but when it works it works beautifully.