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First run Theater cinema

Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter take over the Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne roles in Steven Spielberg’s remake of Victor Fleming and Dalton Trumbo’s wartime fantasy romance A Guy Named Joe (1943). Dreyfuss stars as a reckless fire-fighting airplane pilot named Pete in love with his dispatcher, forest service air traffic controller Dorinda (an adorable Hunter). But when Pete gets killed during his “last mission” an angel (Audrey Hepburn in her final film performance) informs him that he must return to Earth as a ghost to pass on his special knowledge of aviation to a younger pilot (former Marlboro Man, Brad Johnson).  In doing so, he also has to learn to let go as his young successor not only takes over his skills, he begins a romance with the only woman Pete has ever loved.

Without the heroic life and death stakes of the WWII background, the Pete in this version of the story comes off selfish and self-aggrandizing. Whereas Tracy’s Pete sacrifice his life to save a buddy in the middle of a combat mission, Dreyfuss’ Pete saves his best Pal (an over the top John Goodman) because the two arrogant flyboys constantly take unnecessary risks on the job. This cockiness would be fine if Pete changed much as a result of his after-life experience, but Dreyfuss never convinces us that his Pete learns a whole lot over the course of this movie.

Hunter does far better with the material. Though her character is underdeveloped, she brings to it the same charm, spunkiness, and vulnerability she displayed in this same year’s Miss Firecracker, as well as much of the passion and complexity that made her turn in Broadcast News the best performance of 1987. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t turn on Dorinda’s ability to get over the heartbreak of losing Pete, but of Pete being able to let her go. We just don’t get enough from Dreyfuss to feel much of anything once his character can no longer interact with Hunter’s. 

But Always wouldn’t have worked any better with a lead actor who was more in the mold of a contemporary Spencer Tracy. The film never connects viewers to the feelings the characters display on screen because the main emotion the picture explores is nostalgic love for old movies, not the love between a man and a woman. While Spielberg and his screenwriters Diane Thomas (Romancing the Stone) and Jerry Belson (co-creator of the TV sitcom The Odd Couple) are reverential to a fault about the film they’re using as source material, they miss the whole point of its story. While A Guy Named Joe was an unabashedly sentimental tearjerker, it was a film for adults. Always, on the other hand, comes off as a flick for young guys who love reenacting their favorite movies but haven’t fully grown up yet. Thus the airplane aspects of this picture are far more interesting than all the “lovey-dovey stuff.” 

Just a year later, Jerry Zucker would make a similar supernatural love story from Bruce Joel Rubin’s original screenplay of Ghost, demonstrating how profoundly moving a film like this can be if the writer and director are able to use their fanciful premise to tap into powerful human emotions.

Twitter Capsule:
Steven Spielberg’s remake of Victor Fleming and Dalton Trumbo’s wartime fantasy romance A Guy Named Joe (1943) updates the classic films’ setting and production values but without of the WWII life and death stakes the story comes off too saccharine.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, and Kathleen Kennedy

Screenplay by Jerry Belson
Based on the screenplay A Guy Named Joe by Dalton Trumbo
adapted by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan
from a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm

With: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, Brad Johnson, John Goodman, Audrey Hepburn, Roberts Blossom, and Keith David

Cinematography: Mikael Salomon
Editing: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams

Runtime: 122 min
Release Date: 22 December 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1