Viewer Guide: The Natural and The Guard

April 26, 2019 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.

REEL 13 CLASSIC | THE NATURAL

This week’s classic is The Natural, a 1984 baseball drama directed by Barry Levinson.

Looking like he stepped out of a Depression era photograph by Walker Evans, Robert Redford stars a Roy Hobbs, a baseball prodigy whose early talent once seemed to destine him for greatness on the field. Adapted from Bernard Malamud’s mythic novel of the same name, director Barry Levinson evokes the idyllic Midwestern days of Roy’s boyhood training under his father’s tutelage, along with his first romance with childhood sweetheart Iris Gaines, played by Glenn Close. Before long, Roy seems like he’s on a short path to the major leagues: at an impromptu carnival contest with “The Whammer”—a Babe Ruth-like star played by Joe Don Baker—Roy handily strikes him out, his phenomenal skill all the more dazzling in the eyes of Harriet Bird, a zealous admirer played by Barbara Hershey, whose fascination with “greatness” has an ominous intensity.

But Roy’s rapid ascension suffers a dramatic setback, resulting in a sixteen year drop out before he resurfaces in middle age, signed as a right fielder for the New York Knights, a struggling team last in its league that is co-owned by Pop Fisher, played by Wilford Brimley. Unhappy at being saddled with a new player who looks more like he should be retiring, Pop keeps Roy on the sidelines as long as he can, until finally in desperation he puts him at bat to pinch hit in yet another dismal game. Pop—along with everyone else in the stadium—is astonished by Roy’s spectacular out of the ballpark homerun. His extraordinary skill revealed again, Roy once more finds himself in the spotlight, catching the eye of sleazy sports writer Max Mercy, played by Robert Duvall, and a smarmy bookie named Gus Sands, played by Darren McGaven, in league with “The Judge,” the shadowy majority owner of The Knights played by Robert Prosky. Rounding out the cast is Richard Farnsworth as the sympathetic Knights’ coach Red Blow, and Kim Basinger as Memo Paris, Pop’s beautiful niece whose interest in Roy evolves from being an admiring fan into something much more complicated.

With the 1949 shooting of Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie Waitkus by a crazed female fan providing author Bernard Malamud with an inspiration for his novel of The Natural, Malamud’s narrative also takes some inspiration from the Arthurian legend of The Fisher King (hence the character name for Pop Fisher), with Roy Hobbs standing in for Sir Perceval on his quest to find the Holy Grail—or in Roy’s case, that prized league pennant that has eluded the “New York Knights” for so long. In the novel, Roy’s fatal flaws—namely, his pursuit of baseball glory and his affairs with women—ultimately bring about the destruction of his personal “Excalibur”—or for Roy, when his “Wonderboy” bat splits in two.

But Malamud’s downbeat novel differs in many ways from its decidedly more heroic cinematic counterpart. In the book, Iris is not Roy’s boyhood sweetheart nor the mother of his adolescent son, but another impulsive affair in Roy’s long history of short-lived flings. Furthermore, Roy initially accepts The Judge’s bribe to throw the climactic game, then changes his mind when he learns Iris is pregnant with his child—but ends up losing the game anyway. Mercy publishes an expose on Roy’s corruption along with unearthing the Harriet Bird incident, thus vanquishing any hope for Roy’s career or a glorious legacy. Not exactly the makings of a feel-good baseball movie, but audiences rewarded Barry Levinson’s optimistic reboot with a sizable box office. The film’s four Academy Award nominations included a nod for art direction as well as Best Supporting Actress for Glenn Close, along with Randy Newman’s stirring score and Caleb Deschanel’s luminous cinematography, evocative at times of an Edward Hopper canvas come to life.

REEL 13 INDIE | THE GUARD

This week’s indie is The Guard, an offbeat crime comedy-drama from 2011 directed by James Michael McDonagh.

The always formidable Brendan Gleeson stars as Gerry Boyle, a member of the “Garda” police force in County Galway on Ireland’s rural western coast. Accustomed to working alone as well as speaking his mind with little regard for pleasantries or political correctness, Gerry is less than collegial upon finding himself teamed with Aidan McBride, a young recruit out of Dublin played by Rory Keenan, whose by the book mentality is the polar opposite of Gerry’s unorthodox techniques. Assigned to a bizarre murder with occult overtones, Gerry and Aidan begin their investigation with an interrogation that soon seems like a dead-end. But while attending a Garda briefing by FBI agent Wendell Everett, played by Don Cheadle, a strange coincidence emerges. During Wendell’s presentation about four ruthless drug traffickers who may be in the area, Gerry realizes the murder victim he just put in the morgue is in fact one of the smugglers. With the development forcing Gerry into yet another awkward partnership with Wendell, the first challenge facing the unlikely duo is whether Wendell can tolerate Gerry’s offensive remarks and questions, with Wendell puzzling to decide if Gerry’s often outrageous statements are a reflection of his ignorance or a deeper racism. But gradually, Wendell comes to realize that Gerry is crazy like a fox, with a level of quirky determination and unexpected bravery that few can match.

Also featured as the remaining trio of violent drug runners on the lam are Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot, with Fionnula Flanagan in a cameo role as Gerry’s increasingly infirm mother.

The brother of acclaimed writer-director Martin McDonagh, The Guard’s director James Michael McDonagh shares a similar sensibility for deadpan, quirky comedy intermixed with bursts of violence and sudden melancholy. And in Brendan Gleeson, both brothers have found a go-to leading man, with Gleeson also starring in Martin’s 2008 film In Bruges, as well as James Michael’s 2014 film Cavalry. Indeed, Martin is also among the executive producers credited on The Guard. One of the all-time top money makers of Irish independent film, The Guard was also a major success on the international film festival circuit, with screenings at Sundance and Berlin and numerous awards, including a Golden Globe nomination for Brendan Gleeson as Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.

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