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Field of Dreams

A vision inspires Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) to cut a baseball diamond out of his Iowa cornfield, and a mysterious voice tells him, ''If you build it, he will come.'' As Ray surveys his work, he says to his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan), ''I have just created something totally illogical.'' And she replies, ''That's what I like about it.''

Maybe it was just such a voice that told Phil Alden Robinson to make a movie out of W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, a moonlit novel about baseball, dreams, family, the land and literature. Those are not exactly logical ingredients for a Hollywood movie, but Robinson went ahead anyway, and the result is Field of Dreams, a film written and directed by Robinson that's as wonderful and inviting as Ray's ball field.

Casting Costner as the dreamer was equally inspired. Right from the outset he conveys a man with his feet on the ground and his head in the clouds. Initially distrustful of the voice he hears, he catches his young daughter watching Jimmy Stewart in Harvey on TV and snaps off the set, telling her, ''The man is sick. Very sick.'' Almost every note of Costner's Stewartlike performance is true, even though he dresses like Ralph Lauren's idea of an Iowa farmer.

At first nothing happens when Ray builds his little park, but one night his daughter announces, ''There's a man on your lawn.'' It turns out to be Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), the favorite ballplayer of Ray's late father. In one of the movie's best scenes, Shoeless Joe and Ray feel each other out, not with words but with fungoes and BP. At the end of the session, Shoeless Joe tells Ray, ''There are more of us,'' and soon all eight of the Black Sox are playing ball.

Then Ray hears the voice again, and this time it says to him, ''Ease his pain.'' In the book, that command leads Ray to J.D. Salinger -- he feels that he must find the reclusive writer and take him to a baseball game at Fenway Park. In the movie, the writer is the fictitious Terence Mann, played with great gusto by James Earl Jones. It's perfectly understandable why Robinson sends in a pinch hitter for the litigious Salinger. Still, readers of Kinsella's book will miss the joy of having the author of The Catcher in the Rye come out of hiding.

Robinson also eliminates two major characters from the novel -- the oldest living Chicago Cub and Ray's twin brother -- but those cuts help streamline the story. Robinson, whose only previous directorial effort was the romantic box office dud In the Mood, adds some nice touches to Field of Dreams. He makes Ray and Annie refugees from the '60s, which helps explain their willingness to risk their farm for a dream. There is more interaction between the players and Ray in the movie than there is in the book; there's a very nice little moment when Annie calls Ray in for dinner, and the players singsong, ''Dinner, Raaaayyy.''

At Fenway, the characters played by Costner and Jones see a strange message flashed on the scoreboard and hear the voice say, ''Go the distance.'' That command leads them to Chisholm, Minn., to find Moonlight Graham, who played half an inning once for the New York Giants and then became a country doctor. Burt Lancaster is splendid as the player-turned-doctor.

In support of Costner, Madigan is very good as his feisty and loving wife, and so is Gaby Hoffman as their daughter. Liotta, however, does not exactly have the look and feel of Joe Jackson. For one thing, he bats right and throws left, exactly the opposite of the real Jackson, and for another, he has a much larger vocabulary than Shoeless Joe, who was illiterate. The only other sore thumb in the movie is a sentimental rhapsody to baseball delivered by Jones, but that's easily forgiven and forgotten.

Even if the movie weren't so good, Robinson and Universal Studios would deserve a lot of credit for making this illogical film. Costner, too, was bucking conventional wisdom by acting in his second baseball movie in a year (he also starred in Bull Durham). But then, Field of Dreams transcends the genre. Comparing this with the box office hit Major League is a little like comparing The New Yorker to Mad magazine. Field of Dreams is not for everyone, but if you're the kind of person who can't get through the holiday season without watching It's a Wonderful Life or the baseball season without The Pride of the Yankees, then run, don't walk ...