Picks and Pans Review: Field of Dreams

updated 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones

Resurrection. Redemption. Forgiveness. And all of it taking place on a baseball field. Welcome to the First Church of the Hanging Curveball and Game-Ending Double Play.

Ultimately, in fact, this movie is a lot more about religion than it is about baseball. That's true even though its focus is an Iowa farmer, Costner, who plows under part of his corn crop so he can make a baseball field after he hears a voice telling him, "If you build it, he will come." Costner finally intuits—there's some all-star-caliber intuiting in this movie—that the field is meant to provide a place to play for the very late Shoeless Joe Jackson. Jackson was banished from baseball after he confessed to taking money from gamblers during the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Costner's father figures in the intuition, too, since he had died when Kevin was off working at being young and rebellious and Jackson had been Dad's favorite player. Jackson does show up, bringing some of his Black Sox teammates and such other old players as Mel Ott and Gil Hodges with him so he'll have someone to work out with. It's too bad he forgot Rod Serling.

Director Phil Alden (In the Mood) Robinson keeps losing and regaining his grip—on reality and on his audience. Helping him hold on are Costner and, as Costner's unflappably cheery wife, Amy Madigan; Costner and Madigan almost manage to bring their parts off, acting as if it's perfectly normal for long-dead ball players to appear in people's cornfields—in uniform. Jones, too, is a tremendous, steadying influence. As a writer whose '60s novels propounded peace and love but whose life has turned sour and reclusive, he is imposingly grim and funny at the same time. He is totally believable, too, at least until the part where he seems to be following the players back into the past, or maybe it's into death. Heck, the way this picture meanders about, they might all just be heading over to Keokuk for a pizza.

Alden's script (taken from the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella) goes from charming to preposterous to preachy: "The one constant through all the years has been baseball," Costner intones in one sermon. "It reminds us of all that once was good and can be again." Then too, what's to be made of the fact that Jackson is portrayed (by Ray Liotta) as a left-handed thrower and right-handed batter; in real life Jackson threw right, batted left. Is this just an egregiously dumb mistake (tantamount to having Abe Lincoln wear a derby), something noted and considered unimportant, or another one of the mystical details that keep turning up? (One of them is Burt Lancaster as Moonlight Graham, whose major league career lasted for one inning in 1905.)

It's true, of course, that if you start to get skeptical enough, you may start thinking that E.T.'s head has to weigh so much it would snap his neck like a toothpick in Earth gravity. What's finally bothersome about this movie isn't its implausibility, though, but that its supersentimental ending seems to suggest that merely wishing for something is enough to make it happen. All you have to do is show a little gumption, and there is this disembodied voice out there somewhere that will work out all the details for you.

Robinson does a good job of selling the melodrama in this movie. His philosophy is something else. The more you think about it, the more deceived you'll feel. (PG)

From Our Partners