“If you build it, he will come.” Huh? Kevin Costner is hearing voices. The Bull Durham stud is playing a foursquare Iowa farmer this time. He’s the kind of average Joe that Jimmy Stewart embodied in such vintage Frank Capra corn as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. In Field of Dreams, adapted by director Phil Alden Robinson from the 1982 W.P. Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe, Costner is homebody Ray Kinsella. That’s his wife, an endearingly feisty Amy Madigan, and his daughter, seven-year-old Gaby Hoffman, up there on the porch swing. It’s the Eighties, and they’re not chewing on straw, but you get the picture. Ray is out in the cornfields, cocking an ear to a disembodied message that advises transforming his farm and sole source of income into a baseball field for which there doesn’t seem much call. “Did you hear that?” he asks his family. Two heads shake in unison. Ray’s got problems.
So does the movie. A dedicated cast acts out this gooey fable in deadly earnest. I lost my resistance to hoot just after Ray builds the field and the late Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) shows up to play ball with seven ghostly teammates. They’re the eight members of the Chicago Black Sox who were exiled from baseball after being accused of throwing the 1919 World Series for a bribe. For a while, it appears Ray’s mission will be to whiten the reputations of the soiled Sox.
But no. There’s that voice again. “Ease his pain,” comes the command. But whose? At first Ray thinks it’s a Sixties author turned recluse, patterned on J.D. Salinger but played by non-look-alike James Earl Jones. Then Ray is convinced it’s a small-town sawbones (Burt Lancaster) who played one inning with the New York Giants before taking up medicine and dying an old man in 1972. Or it could be Ray’s long-dead dad whose passion for baseball drove a wedge between father and son.
I won’t spoil the outcome for those who know that, whatever the critics say, this is their kind of movie. To be honest, I started hearing things, too. Just when Jones was delivering an inexcusably sappy speech about baseball being “a symbol of all that was once good in America,” I heard the words “If he keeps talking, I’m walking.” Okay, it was just some disgruntled smartass behind me. But as Dreams drags on, that voice remains one well worth taking to heart.