Every Wednesday between now and the end of baseball season the Cru Jones Society brings you a new baseball movie examined for both overall entertainment value and treatment of our favorite game. To suggest a film, email us at staff [at] crujonessociety.com. Otherwise, pour yourself an $8 beer, crack some shells, and let’s play ball.
Date Released: May 11, 1984
Box Office Total: $47,951,979
Team Featured: New York Knights
“You’ve got a gift, Roy… but it’s not enough – you’ve got to develop yourself. If you rely too much on your own gift… then… you’ll fail.” – Ed Hobbs.
Roy Hobbs is a man of extraordinary baseball gifts and a bat he carved himself from a lightning-struck tree on his farm. This story chronicles Roy’s promising start, his missing years, his re-emergence, and the women he loves along the way. This is widely regarded as one of the best sports movies of all-time. Does it get the CJS stamp of approval? Read on and find out…
When we’re introduced to Roy Hobbs, he’s obviously very close with his father and a gifted ballplayer. His father quickly dies of what appears to be a heart attack, and lighting strikes the tree he dies under. Roy uses the wood from that tree to fashion himself a bat which he dubs “Wonderboy.”
Skip ahead a few years and Roy is on his way to a tryout with the Chicago Cubs. He says goodbye to his sweetheart Iris (played by Glenn Close), has a roll in the hay with her, and hops a train to Chicago. There he meets “The Whammer” who we suspect is Babe Ruth, but whose name is never said outright. On a bet, he strikes out the Whammer on three pitches, but unfortunately gets shot in his hotel by some minx in a big ladybitch hat who then kills herself by jumping out the window.
Skip ahead again 16 years, and we find Roy, now middle-aged, joining the New York Knights as a rookie, although not as a pitcher, as a right fielder. Where was he in the intervening 16 years? No one knows, and apparently no one cares, as he joins the team coached by Captain Diabeetus himself, Wilford Brimley. After not getting to play at first for being so old, he eventually stands up to Brimley, shows off his skills in batting practice and proves to be the best hitter anyone’s ever seen.
Roy meets a woman named Memo (played by Kim Basinger) whom he cares for very much, unable to see (like the audience who’s about 18 steps ahead of the plot at this point) that she’s bad news. After a series of bribe offers that Roy rejects and a contrived plot device involving ownership of the team based on how it finishes the season, Roy goes into a terrible slump. He reconnects with Iris who propels him out of his slump by standing up in the bleachers bathed in angelic sunlight.
The season progresses and Memo poisons Roy with a tainted éclair which then reveals that Roy has gradually had his stomach eaten away in the years after getting shot in Chicago. Despite threats that he might die, and a healthy bribe offer from the team’s owner that he rejects (because Roy is incorruptible in case you’ve somehow missed this movie’s sledgehammer of subtlety), Roy plays in New York’s vital playoff game.
If you’re a fan of the movie BASEketball, the movie’s final sequence will be imminently familiar to you since BASEketball more or less rips off the sequence shot for shot. In his final at-bat, Roy fouls one off and splinters Wonderboy. The batboy hands him his Savoy Special, Roy’s stomach injury somehow starts bleeding through his skin and uniform, and he blasts one last triumphant homerun into the right field lights which rains down sparks all over the field. The final shot sees Roy playing catch with his son – Glenn Close’s child, whom she apparently birthed after her and Roy’s one roll in the hay at the beginning of the movie – and we fade to black.
Treatment of Baseball/Quality of Baseball Scenes:
Surprisingly sloppy. In Bull Durham, Crash Davis tells Annie Savoy to “respect the streak” because they don’t come around all that often. Apparently that’s not true in The Natural because the team seems to vacillate between winning dozens of games in a row where Roy puts together two games where he’ll go 8-9 with four homeruns during the good stretches to losing for weeks on end and not getting a single hit in that time.
The play of the Knights alternates between laughably awful (balls through the legs, fly balls clanking off outfield gloves, etc.) to looking like they’re playing the CPU on easy during an exhibition game on MLB 2K9 for XBOX. Hobbs hits homeruns that break windows, crash scoreboards, and travel further than anything Mark McGwire ever hit during his “andro” fueled, beefed up, Big Mac phase.
This is baseball not for baseball fans, but those for whom baseball is but a minor inconvenience while we examine the deeper spiritual implications of the plot. Baseball serves as but a clothesline to hang reverential, backlit shots of Robert Redford off of. He’s clearly the only one in this film the filmmakers are interested in us learning more about, and unfortunately, he’s about the least interesting character in the movie.
Annoying Romantic B-Story/Stifling Spouse?
Roy leaves Iris to pursue his dreams of Major League Baseball. He gets shot in his hotel room derailing those dreams for 16 years. Where does he go and why doesn’t he keep in touch with Iris? He then falls in love with Memo, and after a half dozen no shit moments, realizes she’s not totally on the level. For some reason Iris doesn’t care about his non-contact during his 16 years away, and helps his season get back on track.
The romance in this movie doesn’t so much get in the way of the plot, but rather serves as one of several pieces to a larger puzzle of things that annoyed me about this movie. In addition to the items listed above, why would Iris keep this child from Roy? Why don’t we see this child until the final scene? Why didn’t Roy see Memo for what she was sooner? And did this movie feel like it lasted a day and a half to anyone else?
This isn’t so much a baseball movie as it is a parable about good and evil. Baseball is but the vehicle for which the filmmakers give us hamfisted images displaying good and evil. Kim Basinger – bad. She only wears black. Glenn Close – good. She only wears white and always appears backlit with a golden halo of hair encircling her face. The team’s owner, the mobster, and the newspaper goon – bad. They wear black too, appear only in darkened rooms, and tempt Roy with fame, money, and other awful earthly vices. The Knights – good. They wear white, play the game as best they can, and somehow also get that magic, noble, golden backlighting.
I mostly just found The Natural cloying, contrived, and lacking any nuance whatsoever. And on a pure attention span level, this movie is just…so…long. Every shot is deliberate and at least 3 seconds longer than it should be. The baseball scenes are nothing to write home about, and in fact border on parody considering how many panes of glass Roy breaks with balls off Wonderboy. But I suppose that fits with its parable theme. We want to make absolutely certain the audience knows exactly how to feel about each character, so let’s also leave no doubt what each ball does after Roy crushes it.
The Natural is a fine movie if what you need is a healthy dose of didactic morality tales. Roy might as well be Jesus Christ himself with the way he’s portrayed. So, if you’re in a place in your life where you just want some unvarnished, no-nonsense, 100% pure goodness in your leading man, this is the movie for you. For everyone else, you’ll likely find yourself bored by the two-dimensional characters, heavy handed good vs. evil story arcs, comic exaggeration of baseball playing, and laborious running time.
Ruling from the Scorer: Despite fouling off 11 pitches, this movie goes down on a called strike three.
22 Jul 2009 E Dagger