After the previous outing, the “Randy Newman film” The Natural, the kids were a lot more amenable to baseball movies, generally, and I particularly wanted to see this one, remembering it rather favorably and yet constantly reading people online about how awful it is. Well, I’ve re-seen it, and I don’t get the hate. I mean, yes, it’s a kind of a paean to mental illness, but all magical realism is, if you want to look at it that way. (And some very much want to, it seems.) Magical realism (which works better in baseball than any other sport, I think) is all about whether you buy into it, and this movie does a very good job of coaxing a sale out of you.
I think, perhaps, the objections may be related to the book. Because, you know: Once they read the book, some people (including me when I was a kid) can’t ever accept a movie unless it plays out onscreen in a way they can convince themselves mirrors what they saw in their head. (Though they must, I think, be editing the book vision post-hoc, because a movie never looks like the book.) So you expect people to be upset, because people need upset and this is a very safe thing to be upset about.
However, in my ongoing reading project (where I read the hundreds of books in my shelves I haven’t read), I just so happened to read Shoeless Joe (the book on which this was based), and I still don’t see the problem. It had been long enough since I’d seen the movie (28 years!) that I barely connected the movie with the book, so I was theoretically pretty fresh for both the read and the viewing. The movie lacks the books subtlety, certainly, but of course, it must.
Well, what did the author, W.P. Kinsella think about the movie? He gave it four-out-of-five stars. He faulted the movie for not making the evil brother-in-law (Timothy Busfield, “Thirtysomething”, “The West Wing”) evil enough. To that I say: He’s actually not all that evil in the book. A jerk, unpleasant and without magic, but not really evil. He also faulted the casting of the main characters’ daughter (Gaby Hoffman, Wild, Perfume) for not looking like she could actually be the main characters’ daughter. And, yeah, I suppose Hoffman is far too dark to be the child of Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan.
Madigan is pretty much perfect, though her hippie-esque speech at a community meeting is a little…awkward…this far out from the ’60s. Costner is maybe too All-American to play the free-spirited Richard Kinsella, but it works: This is peak Costner, and he exudes a classic Hollywood affability—Gary Cooper-esque to (say) Tom Hanks’s Jimmy Stewart-ish-ness. Casting-wise, Ray Liotta may, for the first and only time in his career, look like a lovable mug who isn’t about to murder the crap outta someone. (Yes, I wrote it: “murder the crap outta”.) James Earl Jones’ irascible J.D. Salinger stand-in (at the time I thought he was supposed to be the recently deceased James Baldwin, but I didn’t know about the Salinger mystique) is toned down from the book (again, necessarily) and is consequently more immediately likable than Salinger was in the book.
This also means his conversion to believer has a lesser impact, but we got an hour-forty-five here, people: Stuff’s gotta be compressed.
The story, if you don’t know it, is simple: Cash-strapped nouveau farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice in his head saying “If you build it, he will come.” He becomes convinced that if he plows under some of his crops and builds a baseball diamond, the late Shoeless Joe (Liotta) will appear to play on it. Which, of course, is what happens. Soon, all the “Black” Sox (the shamed 1919 Red Sox who threw the World Series) show up. And before you know it, all kinds of baseball legends appear to play on the field, though not everyone can see them.
The voice/feeling becomes more urgent, involving the Salinger stand-in and an old-time player Archibald Graham (Burt Lancaster, in his last feature role, and whom we’d just seen in From Here To Eternity), and resolving a bunch of Kinsella’s unresolved feelings about his deceased father.
It’s good stuff. Emotional stuff that guys can get into, ’cause, you know baseball! Great score by James Horner, if not exactly at the heroic levels of Newman’s score for The Natural (which would’ve been totally inappropriate).
We liked it. It made convincing The Boy to see the next baseball film, A League of Their Own, fairly easy—the Flower had wanted to see it all along for the girls’ uniforms—and this would be another film that held up surprisingly well.