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MOVIE REVIEW : Spielberg’s ‘Always’: Where’s the Fire?

TIMES FILM CRITIC

A better title for “Always” (citywide), directed by Steven Spielberg, might be “Forever,” which is roughly its running time.

Strange, the material that directors seize upon to update. “A Guy Named Joe” was dreadful the first time around, a soppy 1943 movie in which flying ace Spencer Tracy was killed and allowed by crusty old angel Lionel Barrymore to come back to help new pilot Van Johnson become the hot-shot that Tracy himself had been. At the same time, Tracy helped his love, ferry pilot Irene Dunne, get over her grief at his death and made his own regretful farewell.

This bathos might work in wartime, except that Dalton Trumbo’s dialogue, paraphrased only slightly, about the wave of free children who would take to the free air that Tracy was helping keep free in the name of freedom, was questionable even then. And the film’s vision of the uses of heaven prompted critic James Agee to call it “stonily impious.”

Working from a screenplay by Jerry Belson, from material begun by the late Diane Thomas, Spielberg has kept the story almost intact and, in an homage to those Victor Fleming/Howard Hawks kind of films, has created a world in which nothing feels right. Here in the late 1980s, guys call their gals “funny face” and get called “you big lug” in return; fliers have “moxie” until that moment when “their number is up.”

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Richard Dreyfuss is now our flying ace, and since there isn’t a popular war to throw him into, he drops water bombs on forest fires. Well, red, sandy extinguishing stuff. And Holly Hunter, the Irene Dunne in his life, wears khaki jumpsuits and can bomb the sizzle out of those fires as spiffily as he can.

Pilot John Goodman, playing Dreyfuss’ best buddy--charmingly--tries to put his finger on it when he says their flying base is like a World War II movie, full of bombing raids and B-26s, with only Glenn Miller left out. Not exactly. This is a slavish copy of bogus reality: It’s imitation ersatz.

Nevertheless, Dreyfuss and Hunter are one fun couple, matching cute for cute, spunk for spunk. He’s even thought up a great present for her birthday: a white dress, in the spirit of the white dress Karen Allen wore on the run through most of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The kind of clinging white dress that makes audiences perk up, and Hunter gurgle “Gurl clothes!” So, Dreyfuss is cool. He is supportive. He will make sacrifices for his gurl, D’rinda. All he cannot say is the “l” word, as in “I -------- you,” although you and I and that yellow Caterpillar tractor over there know gosh darn well he does.

All of us who fell under Holly Hunter’s spell in “Broadcast News” and stuck to her through “Miss Firecracker” are in for a rough time of it. That wonderful directness and energy, that crackly voice and careening timing--bolting to the end of a phrase and catching herself just before she drops off the end of it--have been pushed into mannerism. She has a terribly affecting moment as, in that white dress, she dances to “their song,” and Dreyfuss, dead and invisible, dances with her. But cuteness turning overripe is not a pleasant sight.

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Opposite her is the pro himself. Richard Dreyfuss has made his career breathing reality into schlock, giving heart and warmth and sometimes a cutting edge to not-great material and making it seem better and finer and truer than it is. And he’s really in peak form here, even if he’s a little bookish for a “fly-boy.” Of all of them, Dreyfuss is the one who hits us with a sense of loss; even with Hunter twinkling away at his side, it’s his face and voice and eyes that draw us. But he can do no better than his dialogue or his situation--or his direction, and all of that is, as they say, tooth-rotting.

As the next fly-boy in line for D’rinda, newcomer Brad Johnson fits the description “big lug” eerily well. He is forgetability in motion. That leaves Lionel Barrymore’s role as the angelic overseer. Director Spielberg has had a nice idea of turning this over to Audrey Hepburn, who is warmly offhanded in white nubbly sweaters and pants. Then he marooned her on what looks like the set for a Glade commercial--all Astroturf and fake daisies--had her trim Dreyfuss’ hair as her first, unfathomable angelic act, and called her “Hap.” It’s tough to smile through plaque like this.

Finally, there are vast fiery action sequences, unclearly edited, involving the safety of brave firefighters we’ve barely met and can’t be persuaded to care about. So we’ve got an unrealized heaven and a banal and noisy Earth. That leaves only hell, and that may feel realized enough by those who pay money to see this gargantuan nonsense.

‘ALWAYS’

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A Universal Pictures and United Artists presentation of a Steven Spielberg film. Producers Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy. Co-producer Richard Vane. Screenplay Jerry Belson, based on “A Guy Named Joe,” screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. Adaptation by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm. Camera Mikael Salomon. Editor Michael Kahn. Music John Williams. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Sound design Ben Burtt. Art director Chris Burian-Mohr. Set decorator Jackie Carr. With Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Brad Johnson, Audrey Hepburn, Roberts Blossom.

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).

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