Steven Spielberg has told the press for years how much he was affected as a child by the old Spencer Tracy fantasy "A Guy Named Joe," and how it was partially responsible for his becoming a filmmaker.
And for about a decade he's been developing a remake of the film to be called "Always."
Well, he finally got around to it after commissioning several screenplays, and "Always" hits movie screens all over the country today. Unfortunately, it's something of a disappointment, and the screenplay, by Jerry Belson ("Smile," "Surrender"), is largely at fault.
Not that there aren't some good things in "Always," but it's yet another example this Christmas season of the sum not living up to the parts.
The story, which was set during World War II in the original film, has been updated and placed in modern times. And that's part of the problem.
Instead of wartime fighter pilots fighting for both a great cause and their own personal survival, the pilots here are firefighters whose derring-do is aimed at swooping down among burning trees to drop chemicals. I don't mean to diminish the importance of such work, but in the context of a movie it doesn't have quite the same sense of drama.
Richard Dreyfuss is a guy named Pete, a hotshot, daredevil pilot who takes risks for the sake of taking risks, not always because they are important to the job at hand. He's in love with air traffic controller Dorinda (Holly Hunter), but she's frustrated by the chances he takes and the fact that he can't seem to articulate his love for her.
Spielberg establishes all of this early in the film in scenes that drag on forever his pacing has never seemed so sluggish.
Eventually, Dreyfuss is killed in a flying accident after saving the life of his best friend and fellow pilot Al (John Goodman), and he finds himself in an odd afterlife where an angel named Hap (Audrey Hepburn) cuts his hair and explains to him what's next: He is to become a guardian angel for an awkward young pilot named Ted (Brad Johnson) to help him become a top-notch firefighter.
Meanwhile, Dorinda can't let go of Pete's memory and continue her life, even when she begins a romance with Ted. Pete's not much help in that regard and soon it becomes clear that Hap's real intentions are to show Pete that he needs to help Dorinda let go and move on.
"Always" has some very funny scenes with Pete using his angelic influence on those he encounters, capped by a hilarious moment with a crazed old man (Roberts Blossom) who seems to hear Pete's words outright. In addition, Dreyfuss and Hunter have some nice chemistry together and, of course, the stunts and special effects are first-rate.
But the film is often cloying and overly sentimental, and it's too leisurely paced to keep us caring for its two-hour running time. If that's not enough, supporting characters are introduced and abruptly disappear, and Goodman and Hepburn don't have nearly enough to do.
The most frustrating aspect, however, is the climax, with Dorinda stealing a plane to save the day. This moment seems extremely inappropriate, and though the sequence is exciting and well-filmed it's a gratuitous element contrived to make Dorinda the hero of the piece. That would be fine if there were a logical progression of events to lead us there. But the result instead is a climax that feels askew and most unsatisfying.
Still, "Always," rated PG for profanity and violence, is probably worth a look for Spielberg fans. Unlike most of his films, however, this one is less likely to bring them back for repeat performances.