“Field of Dreams” (citywide) is a movie about crazy dreams and impossible reunions, and it presents baseball as a kind of national sacrament, the instrument of near-holy reconciliation between the generations. The film is set in an Iowa cornfield, where an obsessed young farmer has built a baseball diamond because he heard voices promising him, “If you build it, he will come.” Who? When? Is the movie a Christ fable, a sports comedy, or both?
Director-writer Phil Alden Robinson certainly has his heart in the right place. He wants to make a film about loving your parents, chasing your wildest hopes, finding and accepting your past. He wants to heal all the wounds of the post-'60s, salve and soothe and bind them up. And he doesn’t do any of this in a cheap or sensationalized way. “Field of Dreams” is about as heartfelt a movie as any major studio has given us recently.
But there’s something missing, something tentative and uncertain. In order to pull off a magic trick, you often have to distract the audience with smooth patter, clever detail or indirection. And this movie tries to play it so pure and unabashed that we can see right up its sleeves.
In the film, adapted from the W.P. Kinsella novel “Shoeless Joe,” Robinson tries to create a symbolic fable about the children of the ‘60s finding their way back to their more conservative parents via the common ground of baseball. The farmer, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), came to Iowa via New York City and college years in Berkeley; an ex-campus radical who parted with his elderly dad on bad terms. Costner plays Ray with the stolid no-nonsense stance of a casual jock and eyes that always seem to be inviting you into a shared joke.
It’s the right contrast, because everything that Ray does seems crazy. After the voice beckons him from the corn, he blows all his family’s money on the diamond, setting himself up for a foreclosure, sitting there in the long, empty Iowa afternoons apparently staring at nothing, waiting for the ineffable. His wife Annie (Amy Madigan), with a saint’s patience, stands behind him. Finally the mists and the cornstalks part, and a Christlike figure appears: Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), baseball’s ultimate outsider-hero, and the central figure in John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out” and, a few years ago, “The Natural,” where he’s the inspiration for Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbes.
Like a prophet, speaking in the crepuscular Midwestern light, Shoeless Joe greets his deliverer, and the voice proceeds to send Ray off again after a missing writer: who, in the novel, was J.D. Salinger, the catcher in the rye following the outfielder into the corn. But Robinson abandons the Salinger reference and turns recluse-writer Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) into a bizarre Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist and black ex-activist who abandoned fiction for poetry about whales and devising computer software programs for children. Jones, amazingly, brings off this absurd role, cowing us with his majestic presence, his wonderfully baleful glare and wry delivery. Burt Lancaster, who can be equally majestic, brings off another peculiar role equally well, a mixture of Norman Rockwell, Jean Hersholt and “The Twilight Zone.”
The movie invites us into what seems a cracked idee fixe , then suggests that the core of the obsession is perfectly true: a mystical gig. The Iowa locations are lit by cinematographer John Lindley (“True Believer,” “The Stepfather”) as a flat but radiant heartland, and at one point Ray makes a joking connection between “Iowa” and “heaven.”
All of this would work better if Robinson built up the reality of the town more, made the citizens a more palpable presence, as Frank Capra did in Hollywood’s greatest fable-fantasy, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You begin to wonder why the Kinsellas get so few non-celestial visitors, why no one in the area asks Ray if they can use his baseball diamond for a game or two. The family seems weirdly isolated, and when they attend a PTA meeting and Annie wins over a book-banning audience by arguing that censorship smacks of Stalinism, the crowd caves in en masse. It’s like a version of “Harvey” where we see James Stewart and the rabbit, but not the wondering or dyspeptic people around them.
But should baseball be presented as a sacrament? Some cold, stylized, supernatural rite where the greats of the past move in stately rhythms across a perfect, barren field with hardly any spectators? Where are the hot dogs, the sweat, the beer, the savage imprecations against the umpire’s sight and sanity, the wild frenzy when the tying run reaches third? Robinson trying to use baseball as a metaphor for America’s common ground ends up diminishing, in a way, what makes it a common ground: the fact that it’s a game full of sunlit frenzy and excitement. He gets the legend of excellence but not the thrill of combat.
It’s a tossup. “Field of Dreams,” (MPAA rated PG), like any wild fantasy, will work if you want it to work, inspire belief if you believe it. The director and actors--especially Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster--are obviously giving it their all. The movie tries to dispel cynicism or doubts, by ignoring the world around it, serving up its magic pure and raw. And, if you want it, it will come.
‘FIELD OF DREAMS’
A Universal release of a Godon Co. Production. Producers Lawrence Gordon, Charles Gordon. Director/script Phil Alden Robinson. Camera John Lindley. Editor Ian Crawford. Music James Horner. Production Design Dennis Cassner. Costumes Linda Bass. With Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Ray Liotta, Gaby Hoffman.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).