Watching Phil Alden Robinson’s 1989 “Field of Dreams” was like being repeatedly doused in the face by some kind of lukewarm, perfumed tea, but its being sprayed in your face by the local librarian with a bright green water gun. And then the librarian rides off on a giraffe, leaving you without a towel and no idea what in the name of sweet flying hell just happened.
“Field of Dreams” opens with our hero Ray (Kevin Costner) narrating about how his father raised him with stories of the great baseball players but was never able to become one himself. Ray and his father grew distant as Ray became older and got swept up in the spirit of rebellion and free love during college in the sixties. Now Ray is a husband and father and having recently purchased a corn farm in Iowa, he worries that he will never be able to achieve his dreams and is doomed to live out his life like his father, never living out his dreams and growing old, mediocre and forgotten. That is until one day walking out in his corn crop, he hears a mysterious voice saying “If you build it, he will come”. He envisions a baseball field with a lone figure standing in the middle in a baseball uniform, who he instinctively recognises as legendary player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta). Something tells Ray that this vision means something pretty special, and he convinces his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) that they should level a portion of their crop and build this baseball field. So they do, and the ghost of Shoeless Joe appears, later leaving and bringing his other Black Sox teammates to play. The strange voice keeps popping up with more vague whispers, taking Ray all over the country where he collects J.D. Salinger-esque writer Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) for the journey while his farm is about to be foreclosed on and the story concludes with Ray throwing a ball with a younger version of his ghost Dad and a shot of a seemingly endless motorcade of cars all coming to visit the pitch.
Some of the most iconic and exciting films have been about sporting teams overcoming adversity and can inspire an emotional response in a way that other films can’t. I didn’t feel inspired, excited or even remotely interested in the game of baseball once during “Field of Dreams”, especially since none of the characters ever raise their voices above a sultry whisper. I think that’s probably the biggest problem with the film; there’s no urgency. Nobody really seems to care either way about what happens to them – Ray isn’t remotely phased that he may lose his farm or that dead baseball players are running around his cornfield. Everyone seems to be walking around in a sleepy, contented sort of trance, except for the film’s villain, Ray’s brother in law Mark (Timothy Busfield), who was the only person remotely concerned that Ray is hearing voices and going off on bizarre whims never minding that he has a wife and a kid with dimples to support. It’s not even that he is throwing caution to the winds for the pursuit of something noble or heroic, he’s jumping to conclusions that make no sense and are basically impossible to correlate with the whispered riddles and is only doing so because he’s worried about not following his dreams, or hallucinations at least. The magic of the film itself is wildly inconsistent too; some of the players are imprisoned within the pitch while others grow old when leaving it. Some people can see the ghosts and other’s can’t, but the film finishes with hundreds of cars lining up to watch the ghosts play.
This was probably one of the most confusing and misguided films I’ve ever seen. Its hard enough trying to figure out what the ham fisted moral of the story is but when the story itself makes absolutely no sense at all, its just a blur of sardonic speeches, bizarrely motivated ghosts, an oddly placed spat of time travel and a smattering of smug but incredibly dumb characters who had no business making the decisions they made with the motivations they had and getting off scot-free. There are of course stories where its necessary to suspend our disbelief and just go along with the fantasy. Even so, the worlds of our favourite fairy tales still had some logic and rules that governed them; Cinderella had until midnight before the magic wore off, Pinnochio’s nose would grow if he told a lie and even the old witch’s gingerbread house probably needed marzipan between the bricks to keep the whole thing upright.
There’s nothing better than a bit of escapism, and maybe I’m being a bit of a killjoy, but nothing about “Field of Dreams” exhilarated or excited me at all. It was a befuddling and sappy mess, and by the credits I was convinced that I probably would have enjoyed the film more had Ray never heard that voice and we followed him as he harvested that year’s corn crop.
By Jock Lehman