A review requested by Zev Burrows, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

It's a bit tricky to decide exactly what to do with The Natural, a 1984 film that's good in almost every possible way, including some ways that a movie of its genre - the Inspirational Period Sports Drama - has absolutely no reason to be good. But the small handful of things that aren't so good are absolutely critical, and these begin with the insoluble paradox of its central piece of casting: Robert Redford makes perfect sense for the requirements of the film's main character as a personality and as the object upon which every other character pours out their observations on masculinity, American life, and baseball, in reverse order; he makes no wrong choices at any point along the way, and in several key places he makes exactly the right choice, even when it's hardly the most obvious or in-tune with his tics as an actor. And despite this, he's Just Not Right.

It's easy to blame his age, and honestly, that's a good enough explanation to the problem that it doesn't even require more digging: everything happening within the story hinges upon the age of Redford's character, in his mid 30s, and while all of us should be so blessed as to look like 47-year-old Robert Redford when we are 47 ourselves, there's little denying that his skin was already taking on the sun-worn cragginess that makes it difficult to think of him as even a year or two younger. I suspect there's a deeper reason for it, too: The Natural is a story about dogged pursuit of one's dreams even when they make absolutely no sense and everyone around is seemingly involved in some unspoken Kakfaesque agreement to work with all urgency against the fulfillment of those dreams, but Redford has such a charming presence, ready to fall into such warm and inveigling line deliveries at the drop of a hat - he seems, briefly, so smart, collected, and on top of everything that it's never very easy to imagine him having a hard time getting things in life. There was a little stretch there in the '70s when he was working with directors and scripts that facilitated that - Three Days of the Condor most effectively - but in general, Redford characters never appear to be working for it. A film like The Candidate trades on that; a film like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid goes with it. The Natural runs right up against it.

That is, however, an unnecessarily pissy foot to start off with regarding a film that I just described as "good in almost every possible way". Adapted - somewhat carelessly, it is generally alleged - from Bernard Malamud's 1952 baseball-as-Arthurian-quest novel by Robert Towne and Phil Dusenberry, The Natural takes place primarily in two narrative chunks, one in the early '20s and one in the late '30s, that find wannabee baseball player Roy Hobbs (Redford), as a young man - and all other misgivings aside, it was a titanic miscalculation to have Redford play the 19-year-old Hobbs as well as the 35-year-old version - getting shot by a deranged baseball groupie-slash-serial killer (Barbara Hershey), and I will confess that at this point, The Natural very nearly lost me. But it muscles on through to find the much older Hobbs, still nursing his talent in silence, being signed by the desperate New York Knights, and proving himself an unprecedented phenom for an old guy, with a virtually supernatural ability to hit the ball with his homemade bat, Wonderboy, carved from the wood of a tree from his childhood farm. This kind of success attracts all the wrong kinds of attention, with the team's corrupt owner (Robert Prosky) and a charismatic gambler (Darren McGavin) colluding to throw a temptress, Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) in Hobb's path and convince him through her to start throwing games. And he falters, on and off, when not being bolstered by his newly returned childhood sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close), but this being the kind of film it is, there's no real surprise that he's more in the off-faltering mode when the Big Game comes and it becomes not merely question of talent but of moral character whether he'll drag the Knights into the World Series.

It's all very corny and much of it's almost alarmingly overbaked: a scheming honeypot named Memo Paris belongs in the steamy back alleys of film noir, not a sun-dappled paean to nostalgia, fair play, and the Great American pastime. Yet it works - it works almost without a single exception, in fact, and the only problems I can really level against it are a somewhat clumsy sense of chronology in the first act (exacerbated in the director's cut), and a couple of weak performances here and there (Redford's miscasting, Basinger's slack-jawed emptiness, Close's closed-off quietness in a somewhat snoozy performance of an absolutely narcoleptic character, for which she somehow managed her third Oscar nomination in as many years).

Admittedly, "problems" are in the eye of the beholder, and some of the things I'd list among the film's biggest strengths could easily be turned around and cited as overwhelming weaknesses: it all depends on how much you mind being elbowed by Randy Newman's absolutely shameless score, with its noble and sad Trumpets of Americana; it's the kind of relentless soul-stirring that tends to get people incredibly angry at the overt attempt to manipulate the viewer's emotions, though what kind of innocent fool wanders into a sports drama and plans to not have their emotions manipulated three ways to Sunday, I can't suppose. Anyway, I'd rather have it happen because Newman is good at his job than because the screenwriters are bad at theirs. Also falling into the "good unless you think it's bad" camp: Caleb Deschanel's equally shameless cinematography, rendering every available surface in a layer of dusty haze with each molecule of air lovingly wrapped in soft sunlight. It's brazenly pretty and hushed, and it's making a play for faded historicity that, by 1984, certainly didn't qualify as strikingly original. But Deschanel is as good at this kind of thing as anybody ever has been - it's an extension of and improvement on what he was doing in the already impressively handsome The Right Stuff (his film immediately preceding this one), investing hard in the Rockwellian picturesque qualities that the story's nostalgic elements demand and providing the right visual space for its feints towards mythological resonance to feel plausible and organic and not just like literary conceits.

The film's biggest strength, though, and maybe its unlikeliest, is that it feels shockingly free of urgency. Barry Levinson, directing only his second career feature (and his best till at least his seventh, Avalon, by my reckoning), makes none of the ordinary decisions in how to pace his film's race to the pennant; if anything, The Natural feels like it stretches out and slows down the closer it gets to the climax, indulging itself in lingering with the characters and watching them navigate the precise re-creation of 1930s New York, and at no point until the game itself acting like this is some kind of world-altering moment of grave importance. It's a languid, ambling film, one that slows almost to a complete stop in the scenes when Close arrives and it devotes itself entirely to becoming a character drama. And this has the bizarre, unpredictable, but wholly tangible effect of making it feel fuller and realer: by backing off on the melodrama that usually characterises underdog sports movies, and just hanging out in the characters' space, Levinson succeeded in making one of the only underdog sports melodramas that absolutely convinces us that it's worth taking seriously at all. For it's not just about grinding through plot points that we're well aware are going to play out precisely the way they play out; it's about seeing the reverberations of those plot points in more detail than most films that are just rushing to get uplift junkies their fix could ever dare to try for. It's still hemmed in by its genre, and I say that as a person who has very, very little use for that genre, by custom. But a more thoughtfully presented and literate movie dedicated to the principal that baseball is all things holy and noble is extremely hard to imagine.