The Natural, Barry Levinson's step-up to the Hollywood big leagues after Diner, is a handsome, languorous, slightly-too-good-to-be-true wartime drama that aims to multiply America's love affair with baseball via the camera's love affair with Robert Redford. Given that it opens with the junior version of Redford's sporting superhero Roy Hobbs carving a magic bat out of a tree struck by lightning, it's doubtful we should have been looking out for psychological realism in the first place, but what follows is mesmerising in its simplicity: it's a film where the forces of goodness are framed in perpetual magic-hour sunlight, while the shadowy forces who fix matches sit in actual shadow (and get long speeches underlining the fact) and nefarious bookmaker Darren McGavin operates with a dodgy eye. (Glenn Hoddle, you sense, would love it.) The early disappearance of Barbara Hershey (as a black widow) and Michael Madsen (egotist teammate) from the plot serves further notice of a film unwilling to support anything in the way of complexity. In their place, there unfolds a conventional sports narrative in which Redford tries to fashion a comeback in middle age while tangling with two very 1984 women: Kim Basinger (gleaming, accursed status symbol) and Glenn Close (miscast as Hobbs's smalltown sweetheart; even back in 84, she never seemed the type who'd have to climb out of a window in the middle of the night).
Hobbs himself appears to have been conceived along the lines of a comic-book character, a Midwestern Roy of the Rovers or Billy from Billy's Boots, although for an underdog, the odds seem stacked rather too heavily in his favour: somehow it's not enough that he should be Redford-handsome, and possessed of an ability to hit the ball at full pelt into the standing features of any baseball stadium, he's able to pitch the perfect game, too. Depending on your point of view, the leading man either gives an impossibly earnest response to this at least semi-preposterous material, or earns his fee by planting doubts and hesitancy - struggling physically to get through a turnstile at one point - where there really ought to be none. Levinson assembles the montages, spinning headlines and period detail with a slick competency, but even to this viewer, a sucker for the cornballs tossed up in the course of Field of Dreams and A League of Their Own, this 140-minute film felt overstretched. Never more so than when outlining a philosophical treatise on the significance of chance within the sporting arena: this script (by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, adapting a 1952 novel by the American writer Bernard Malamud) hasn't the honesty to admit that its hero has just been blessed, and yet can't do anything clever with the theme of dumb luck.
The Natural is available on DVD through Sony Pictures.