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‘Field of Dreams’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 21, 1989


Phil Alden Robinson
Kevin Costner;
Amy Madigan;
James Earl Jones;
Burt Lancaster;
Ray Liotta;
Timothy Busfield
Parental guidance suggested

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"Field of Dreams," a ghostly baseball story, couldn't have a better setting than an Iowa cornfield. Shucks, corn is the operative word. The characters wax ever poetic over the glories of bat, glove and ball. This is the myth of peanuts and Cracker Jack, ball play as next to God, and Shoeless Joe Jackson as archangel.

Like "Eight Men Out," this movie springs from the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the year the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. And the baseball commissioner threw eight White Sox out of the game. Shoeless Joe, one of them, maintained that he was innocent and went off to get fat and play under an assumed name in the minor minor leagues.

"Eight Men Out" used the soiled Sox to underscore the modern decline of honor. The batty "Field of Dreams" redeems Joe Jackson in the afterlife. Joe (Ray Liotta) is, like Casper, a friendly spirit who haunts the present-day baseball diamond that Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) creates in his cornfield. Ray, a '60s flower child turned farmer, builds the ballpark after hearing The Voice. "Build it and he will come," The Voice kind of mumbles.

"Build what and who will come?" asks his spunky, supportive wife Annie (Amy Madigan), who first thinks he's having an acid flashback. "He didn't say," says Ray. "Don't you hate when that happens?" says Annie. Their adorable daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffman), weaned on baseball, never doubts her daddy.

To the American Gothic locals, however, this is a family of flakes. Pickups line the highway as the townsfolk come on over to observe Ray round off the pitcher's mound, pour the lines of lime, mount floodlights and bleachers. Time passes -- we are reminded of Noah awaiting the rains -- when out of the corn comes Shoeless Joe.

"Daddy, Daddy!" says Karin.

"Is this Heaven?" asks Joe.

"No, it's Iowa," says Ray.

Meanwhile, as you might well imagine, the Kinsellas are unable to pay the mortgage, having plowed under a portion of their crop and spent all their savings to fund Ray's obsession. Then Ray's faith is again tested. Comes the rumble from thin air: "Ease his pain."

Say what?

By now we're beginning to wonder where in the world this story is going, what's the point, who's on first? We were expecting fast and down the middle, and then writer-director Phil Alden Robinson throws a golldarn screwball. And boom, next thing you know, Ray's left Annie to fend off bankruptcy alone while he drives to Boston to meet with famous author Terence Mann (J.D. Salinger in W.P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe," the novel that inspired the movie).

Terence (James Earl Jones), the voice of the '60s and Ray's favorite novelist, is disillusioned and no longer writes. At first, Terence refuses to join Ray at a ball game; then, miraculously, the cantankerous writer begins to hear The Voice and gets caught up in The Dreams. And it's off to keep other appointments with destiny, to fulfill the bubblegum-card wishes and let Frank Capra out of the dugout.

Everything from time travel to melodrama figures in this whimsically daft story, a romanticization that tries your patience even as your tear ducts well. It is, after all, hard to resist the notion that America's pastime is God's game of choice: The Lord is my umpire.

As "Damn Yankees" showed us, a man would sign on with the Devil for "the thrill of the grass," as Shoeless Joe puts it here. And "Field of Dreams" comes down to that. Especially if you're a boy, or a screenwriter with bad knees.

The movie wants to say too much. Its bases are loaded, but not all the runs are batted in. Joe and Terence are inclined to gooey speeches about baseball as the meaning of life. The novelist, in Darth Vader's basso profundo, declares, "The one constant through all the years has been baseball. It reminds us of all that once was good ..." And so on. Women get this way about jacks.

Poesy, pointlessness and baseball worship aside, the movie is easy to get along with. Costner is a likable lead, as plausible with his ghosts as Jimmy Stewart was with Harvey. When Shoeless Joe arrives for the first time, Costner's face lights up like the sun on a brand-new tractor. A worldly-wise catcher in "Bull Durham," here he operates from the pitcher's mound, as purely innocent as a big-eyed cow. And likewise Amy Madigan is no groupie in a garter belt. She's an understanding foil for Costner's daft disciple.

"Field of Dreams" is no "Bull Durham." It doesn't strike out, but it does foul a few off the bleachers.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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