Preface: I have not seen the original cut of this film. I have not read Bernard Malamud’s novel.
I picked this up because I’m a stupid sucker for packaging and silly physical extras, and this was released with a “signed” baseball and a “New York Knights” cap. I hadn’t previously expected to run for it, as I am not instantly drawn to sports films (though I usually enjoy them). I do like Robert Redford, though, and will often happily pick up a film that stars him without much thought beyond it.
Roy Hobbs (Redford) is an old man, as baseball players go, when the film opens, with him walking up into a dilapidated house that brings him back to its glory days when it was his childhood home–the lessons and wisdom from his father on how to be the best baseball player he could be–or ever. We see him carve his own baseball bat, we see the loss of his father, and then we begin to see him reminiscing about a trip that takes him into competition with Walter “The Whammer” Whambold (good ol’ Joe Don Baker, reliable these days primarily as the “goofy redneck dad,” but previously bringing Buford Pusser to life in the original Walking Tall) who seems to me an obvious reference to the Great Bambino, where he takes him out in three pitches. There to witness it is sportswriter Max Mercy (Robert Duvall–always a pleasure), who is astonished by the skill of this young man. Hobbs is intimidated by “The Whammer” but is drawn to a strange young woman named Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey, not long off from The Stunt Man!) who seems intent on discovering whether Hobbs is the best ball player ever. Unknowingly, this leads Hobbs to the untimely delay of his career.
Sixteen years later, Hobbs returns to the field, this time claiming a place as right fielder for the New York Knights, a pro team under duress as ownership goes between “The Judge” (Robert Prosky, always fun, most memorable to me as Gremlins 2: The New Batch‘s Grandpa Fred) and coach Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley). Between them we find Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) and big league bookie Gus Sands (Kolchak, the Nightstalker…I mean, Darren McGavin). Hobbs manages to prove that he is, in fact, a natural when it comes to the sport and must decide whether to use his skill to endorse Pop’s eventual ownership of the team (which requires winning a pennant) or in monetary gain for himself (in helping The Judge regain complete ownership). He finds himself drawn back to childhood sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close, in a lead romantic interest role, which is not at all what I know her for) who helps him find his footing in the game.
The major criticisms levelled at this movie relate primarily to the changes made from the original novel, whether they are made because of the fact that they are changes or for their inherent nature. Generally speaking, that is, the film is considered ineffectual for being overly sentimental, sunny and worshipful of Redford. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. These kinds of things rarely bother me if they are done correctly, and we’re in the hands of Barry Levinson here, no slouch as a director, and actors like Redford, Brimley, Close, McGavin, and so on–they know what they’re doing. I actually noticed some lines of dialogue that I instantly knew would easily have tilted into the realms of ridicule if they were spoken by mouths other than actors as talented as these. And beyond that, it’s obviously acknowledged. When a lightning bolt streaks across the sky in unison with the first in-game hit from Hobbs, we know that this is mythology, legend, fairy tale. We know that the other part of that hit is so outrageous that this is not something they are intending to broadcast as reality. This film is fantasy, an endorsement of the idea of heroes and myths in the legendary sense (rather than the literal fact of how stories in mythology run, that is) and it is about one such hero, so it is re-arranged and written from what I know of the book so as to fit that intention. Randy Newman’s score (he scores things?! I knew he had done SONGS for movies…how did I miss this?) is perfect for this, and I knew within moments that between Newman’s score, Levinson’s direction and Caleb Deschanel’s Oscar-nominated cinematography, I was in for that wonderfully warm glow that comes from movies like this, that remind me of movies in my youth–so instantly familiar, so able to stretch the limits of believability almost to their breaking point to give us that heightened level of reality and the greater tension and enjoyment that come from it. I was absolutely pleased with the entire thing, and did not care one bit that it was what it was, because these people knew how to get it to that point–and of course, Redford can actually hit, and it shows. We believe those hits like we sometimes don’t in film, because he was indeed making them.
Definitely one of the stronger sports films I’ve watched, and it’s a dangerous genre when everyone boils them down to the idea of the crucial last game and the win versus the loss, an idea I’ve discussed before in the review for…something else, and I won’t get into again here.