"The Milagro Beanfield War" is taking a lot of lumps from critics nationally, and most of those lumps are somewhat deserved. The film rambles, is unfocused, is rather heavy-handed in its environmental message and suffers from the bad guys being a bit too bad and the ending being a bit too sentimental.
But if this movie were directed by anyone other than Robert Redford I doubt that national critics would come down quite so hard on it.The simple fact is that despite its flaws "Milagro" is still a very pleasant outing, loaded with delightful characters and a great many very enjoyable set-pieces in what is basically a comedy with serious undertones (or perhaps a drama with comic overtones).
The main story has to do with a frustrated young bean farmer named Joe (Chick Vennera) who accidentally damages a water line that runs past his property, spilling water into his beanfield. Joe becomes inspired, however, that he should have as much right to water that runs through his property as anyone, so he purposely diverts the line to irrigate his land. This defiant act upsets the powerful developer (Richard Bradford) who owns the line and splits the rural community as everyone takes sides. The mayor (Freddy Fender) wants him stopped, the sheriff (Ruben Blades) is sympathetic but tries to discourage him, the local mechanic (Sonia Braga) becomes an activist in his defense, the local burned-out lawyer-newspaper editor (John Heard) reluctantly gives him aid and his immediate neighbors, an elderly farmer (Carlos Riquelme) and a young Anglo student (Daniel Stern), help him till the land.
Riquelme also has periodic conversations with an earthy angel (Roberto Carricart), has a pig that is so expressive it would put Lassie to shame, and converts down-to-earth Stern to a basic belief in spirits through an act of martyrdom.
Bradford calls in a hired gun (Christopher Walken) and his bubble-headed younger wife (Melanie Griffith) questions his integrity.
In the end, however, there is no question that the little guy will triumph over the conglomerate. And there's no question that much of this is in Frank Capra territory, either. Not that that's a complaint, really.
These are the complaints: "The Milagro Beanfield War" tends to roam from scene to scene without much structure and occasionally veers off into mini-movies of other genres, as when it resembles a western where the hero is tracked by a merciless bounty hunter. And while the environmental message is integral, must we have redundant scenes of bulldozers knocking down trees throughout the film?
But, as mentioned, none of these gripes mars the overall enjoyment of the film if it is taken on its own small terms. The performances are all marvelous, especially the subtleties offered by Blades, Braga, Riquelme, Stern and Heard. The film is character-heavy, however, and some seem completely unnecessary, particularly Griffith, whose role is out of sync with everyone else in the movie.
Redford's use of mythical overtones to embellish the story are appealing and well-placed, and his use of actors and great local faces works very well. And his cinematographer (Robbie Greenberg) makes fabulous use of the New Mexico locations, bathing us in rich sunsets and green landscapes and gorgeous skylines.
Redford is to be congratulated for daring something different from his Oscar-winning first directing turn, "Ordinary People," and for much of the way it pays off. "The Milagro Beanfield War" is funny, charming and quite delightful in its own way.
The R rating here also seems extremely severe. The violence is certainly within PG limits; the R rating is strictly for profanity, and there's not really a lot of that.