Spielberg’s only straight remake is as misjudged a piece of genre hopping as 1941, his sole stab at comedy a decade earlier,. Except that film at least has a crazy excess, for all its lack of real laughs. Always updated 1943’s A Guy Named Joe) and saw Spielberg dip his toe in the romance genre. You can count the number of times he’s subsequently attempted remakes or romances on one finger. As with laughers, he probably wisely realised love stuff wasn’t his forte.
Dabble with both comedy and romance, but in the service of an entirely different genre, and Spielberg can deliver something as fresh and vital as Raiders of the Lost Ark. But Always is a torpid affair, as if Spielberg buttoned himself down in order to respect the genre and the source material. He is diligent and earnest, but devoid of inspiration. You’d think this was just the next on his list of genres to tackle.
Yet the story goes that he and Richard Dreyfus first indulged their yen for the original movie while making Jaws, when they quoted lines at each other. It then shows up on the spooked family’s TV set in “Steven directed it really” Poltergeist, so it was clearly ever-brewing. The original was set during WWII, in which a recently deceased pilot returns as in spirit form to guide his replacement, and then reluctantly see his ex-girlfriend fall in love with said new guy. The ‘berg’s version follows the same basic template, but transposes the action to 1989 and an aerial firefighting team.
A romance isn’t likely to move a breakneck speed, but it needs some momentum, some life in its bones. Always might be seen as the next stage in Spielberg’s desire to explore “adult” material and themes, following on from The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. He had been notably less than enthused about making Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade until the father/son dynamic caught his imagination (it shows in much of the so-so action), and Always (the beginning of a habit for delivering both a crowd-pleaser and a bid for critical acclaim in the same year) must have seemed like a significant statement. Stevie had grown up. But it actually suggests his newfound maturity is mere mimicry. He doesn’t really get romances, and he is certainly unable to ignite a spark between his leads or make the conflict and tragedy involving.
Part of the problem is the casting. Richard Dreyfuss is all wrong as Pete Sandich (the Spencer Tracey role in Joe). He leaves a vacuum at the centre of the movie, a stark contrast to the egghead energy and manic obsessiveness he brought to Jaws and Close Encounters respectively. Dreyfuss even looks dull. He was only in his early 40s when he made the picture, but he looks 10 years older. Grey and tempered, it’s difficult to see what Holly Hunter’s Dorinda (a ball of energy, even if she’s hitting all the notes of a typical Hunter role at the time) sees in him. Worse, Spielberg casts Brad Johnson as the new man in Dorinda’s life (Ted Baker). Johnson has all the charisma of a lumberyard, in only his second movie role (he vanished to TV and DTV as quickly as he arrived). It’s one thing not to be enthused by the departed, quite another to actively root against Holly finding new love because the proposed is the doziest man-hunk imaginable. It’s a fatal mistake, because we need to see, along with Pete, why Dorinda should move on with her life.
It’s ironic that the director, whose movies up until the mid ‘80s displayed a remarkable ability in predicting general audience’s tastes, slips up so resoundingly that a film the following year, treading similar territory, scores in every way this doesn’t. Ghost, from one of the Airplane! directors, pulls off the unfeasible feat of making you care for soppy Demi and generally slightly unsettling Patrick Swizzle. But Ghost conveys the illusion of deep feeling and loss, helped by an evergreen classic (Spielberg also tries that trick, but fails to conjure swoons). Perhaps the thriller plot was the key to Ghost breaking out; it had direction, whereas Always struggles to locate the next scene, and does so at such a crawl that the feeling this was an exercise for its director is reinforced; not a passion project (whatever he may say to the contrary).
Jerry Belson adapted the screenplay; previously he worked an uncredited pass on Close Encounters and ironically (for such a fun-free ride as Always) eked out a career in TV comedy. His finished script is resolutely hackneyed; it’s not only the scenarios (which evoke a ‘40s movie, but not in the good way that you get from watching a ‘40s movie) but also the sentiment. By that I mean the sentiments expressed; surprisingly, for such a drippy title, this doesn’t drip buckets of sugary gloop over the viewer. Holly tries her best when she gets all teary over missing Dick, but the emptiness of the men in the movie means there’s nothing to get worked up about. It’s inert.
The dialogue is so so-so that it needs cast alchemy to make it fly. “It’s not the dress, it’s the way you see me in it.” “I sent you back to say goodbye. And until you do, she won’t be free.” One-line strains for cod-poetry, the other hits you over the head with its lack of polish. Here’s another; “I know now, The love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here”. What priceless pearls! When Audrey Hepburn’s angelic Hap informs Peter that, to gain his freedom, he must learn to give the same to Dorinda, you are forced to acknowledge this never has a chance to rise above the trite. It’s not just a show-don’t-tell thing, it’s that it’s so artless. And when a line as clumsy as “It’s a year tomorrow” (since Pete died) is inserted to give Dorinda realisation of Pete’s passing, it becomes clear something is very awry (as if she wouldn’t know exactly the date the love of her life had snuffed it; presumably she would have spent the next day oblivious if Ted hadn’t reminded her).
Spielberg and Belson have no interest in the broader philosophical questions either, although whenever there’s a hint of the eternal realms you can see the Spielmeister stirring from his stupor. It’s another area Ghost got down pat; the essential fascination with the beyond. Show just enough not to overwhelm the love story. The restraint here would be commendable if the romance engaged, but instead you long for more of scenes such as those with the crazy old man who repeats Pete’s lines and the bus driver who dies but is brought back to life. When Hap informs Pete that six months have passed on Earth, but only a few hours to him, it seems as if we might be privy to a fully-formed take on the afterlife. But it never materialises. Hap is a Yoda figure without even the dressed up homilies; it’s as if Spielberg is afraid of being anything of appearing opinionated. Again, at least Ghost takes a view, as overtly Christian as it is. Spielberg succeeds in making the afterlife as slack-jawed as the average Ron Howard movie. In Ghost, The Righteous Brothers made much of the moment where the lovers exchange a final kiss. Here, the recognition is devoid of impact, apart from some pretty lighting as Dorinda heads to the surface of the lake.
If the romance crashes and burns, the attempts at humour are as lame as can be. It’s frightfully funny when John Goodman’s Al gets oil all over his face. Again and again. Then gets covered in fire repellent. And gets pissed off with brawny Brad the clumsy klutz. Goodman does his best, and he’s never less than an agreeable presence (in anything), but this is the kind of thankless supporting role he is too often consigned; the big loveable fat man sidekick. It’s great seeing him and Hunter reunited (Stevie was a big Raising Arizona fan?) but neither can make a silk purse out of this one. Brad is supposed to be a charming goofball but his funny bone was absent at birth. And Dreyfuss is stuck sulking for 90% of the duration. It’s nice to see Audrey Hepburn one last time, but she’s so lightweight and unaffecting, she virtually immaterial. Original choice Sean Connery might have added some heft, but even he couldn’t have made Dreyfuss more “spirited”. Blink and you’ll miss Keith David (maybe he just wanted to say he’d worked with the ‘berg?)
Even the standard Spielberg sure things are as doused as the fires Pete and co put out. The action finale at least works up a pulse, but it shoots itself in the foot before Dorinda takes off. Her action is so foolish, given her ropey flying skills displayed earlier, that she loses audience sympathy by battling the fires herself. Spielberg hasn’t worked enough at her psychology to let us empathise with her fragile mental state (and certainly not enough to suggest why she’d want to save Ted from danger, the big galoot). There’s a nice opening shot of a seaplane coming into view behind some startled fishermen, and sporadically an image packs a punch (Al’s reaction to Pete’s plane exploding, through his dirtied window) or are beautifully composed (Al, on the runway, trailing balloons) but Mikael Salomon bathes the picture in snoozy golden light (he’s work on the same year’s The Abyss is outstanding, however). Likewise, you’d be hard-pressed to recall anything about John Williams’ autopilot score.
Whatever you think oof Spielberg’s later career trajectory (and I’m generally not a huge fan; most of his work from the ‘90s onwards is reliable crafted but fundamentally flawed, usually due to broken-backed narratives), it’s evident he was undergoing an internal reconfiguration around this time. His desire to be taken seriously made his event movies seem calculated even by his standards, while his lack of real intellect stymied aspirations toward tackling weightier material. He’s not been the same since he stopped following his “shallow” populist instincts as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, that’s from the early ‘80s onwards. On the plus side, Always was in no real danger of wearing the dunce cap of Spielberg’s worst movie; Hook was just around the corner. The only way from there could be up.