Generally speaking, there are two types of baseball movies: The first are inspirational movies, often awash in old-timey nostalgia, that follow a bunch of loveable losers who win the Pennant via last-inning fluke heroics. The second is Bull Durham. In many ways, Bernard Malamud's novel The Natural could be considered the ultimate example of the former category, a myth-making fable that draws from larger-than-life baseball figures like "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Ted Williams, Branch Rickey, Eddie Waitkus, and Babe Ruth. Except for one minor sticking point: The hero strikes out in the end. It would be a gigantic understatement to say that Barry Levinson's 1984 film version compromises the original ending, given that it concludes with perhaps the most spectacularly triumphant swing in movie history. And yet as much as it betrays the tragic underpinnings of Malamud's story, the phony ending remains the film's most powerful sequence, earning an ironic place in baseball's iconography.
The new two-disc director's-cut edition of The Natural adds another six minutes to the running time, which does no favors to a movie that was already ankle-deep in sentimental sludge. A somnambulant Robert Redford stars as a hot pitching prospect whose dreams of becoming the best to ever play the game are cut short by a black-veiled stranger (Barbara Hershey) who guns him down with a silver bullet. Fifteen years later, Redford finally makes it to the big leagues as a middle-aged rookie right-fielder for the bottom-dwelling New York Knights. His magical stroke—aided by a bat carved from a tree felled by lightning—brings the Knights back from the dead, but powerful forces in the front office, the media, and the gambling world are looking to bring him down.
Because The Natural has been conceived as a fable, it's forgivable that the characters are drawn as the very embodiments of Good and Evil, particularly Glenn Close and Kim Basinger as the twin poles drawing Redford. But given the movie's draggy 144-minutes run time, shockingly little is made clear: Why does the evil journalist (Robert Duvall) have it in for Redford? Why is Redford and Close's romantic past such a mystery? And most importantly, what makes this golden-fleeced dullard tick? At the center of the movie, Redford comes off as a total blank, exercising so little control over his destiny that it's a wonder his bat even needs him to swing it.
Key features: Levinson explains some of the modifications in a video introduction, while the supplemental disc works hard to mythologize the film, Ken Burns-style. Grade: C (In stores April 4th)