NEW YORK — ABOUT halfway through ``Field of Dreams,'' a radical author (played by James Earl Jones) compliments a visionary baseball fan (Kevin Costner) on pursuing his ideals with such a passion - a passion that's ``misdirected,'' he says with some scorn, but still a passion. During its first few scenes, I thought ``Field of Dreams'' deserved the same remark. Its energies were certainly misdirected, it seemed to me as I watched: The story kept wandering from one interest to another, focusing on baseball and 1960s radicalism and the 1980s farm crisis, among other subjects, in no particular order.
Yet there is a kind of passion in its goofy idealism about the American way of life. You can't help liking a movie, no matter how corny, that's goggle-eyed about subjects you just don't see in the movies very often nowadays - like mom, and baseball, and kindly old doctors who solve everyone's problems with a twinkle in their eyes. The picture almost overwhelms you with sheer niceness.
Unfortunately, this effect doesn't last; eventually the movie goes too far and overdoses on its own saccharine. Also, fantasies must be careful to establish their ground rules clearly and then stick by them, no matter what. But this one has the consistency of a wildly pitched knuckleball.
``Field of Dreams'' begins with a fast trip through the '50s and '60s, showing how an ordinary guy named Ray grew up, flirted with progressive '60s politics, got married, and became what he never dreamed he'd be: a middle-class Iowa farmer with a family and a mortgage.
THE plot thickens when he has (you guessed it) a dream in a field, hearing mysterious words from a disembodied voice. The words tell Ray to build a baseball diamond on his farm - and then Shoeless Joe Jackson, a member of 1919's scandal-ridden Chicago White Sox, will return to life and start belting home runs right there in the cornfield.
Ray obeys, and Shoeless Joe's ghost does come to visit. But this isn't enough for the powers that have chosen Ray as their assistant. Next he has to befriend a writer who lost his idealism when the '60s ended, and then they have to visit a small town where a lovable country physician once lived. All these plot-threads are woven into a single strand after a while, but not very convincingly, and only after some arbitrary maneuvers. The ending is happy, sentimental, and far-fetched.
AT a time when most movies suffer from an appalling lack of ambition, I don't like chiding methinks that can apply only to people, since it means scolding or reproving any picture for attempting too much. But the main trouble with ``Field of Dreams'' is that it tries to cram about three films' worth of material into one overstuffed story.
It might have worked better as a series, with Ray having a different adventure in three different movies. The tale keeps taking off in new directions, and the underriding logic is so weak that each new twist seems half-baked and contrived. Least successful of all are the movie's stabs at social awareness, which seem hopelessly superficial even though they mean well.
The terrible Midwest farm crisis is handled so weakly that it's almost an insult to people who have suffered directly from it; and when Ray's wife takes a '60s-style stand against censorship at a school meeting, her arguments are as flabby as they are feisty.
On the plus side, Kevin Costner gives a winning performance as our hero, and Amy Madigan is likable as his wife. James Earl Jones is in good form as the aging author, and it's a pleasure to watch Burt Lancaster do just about anything these days, as his talent continues to mellow and mature.
In the Shoeless Joe role, by contrast, Ray Liotta recaptures little of the phenomenal energy he showed in ``Something Wild'' not long ago. The movie was written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, based a W.P. Kinsella novel. John Lindley did the warmly glowing cinematography, which makes the film a pleasure for the eyes even when its inspiration sags.