Heartfelt but goofy, Steven Spielberg's 1989 film ALWAYS is at its best when it's focused on its forest fire battling heroes. Unfortunately, most of the film revolves around a romance with no spark.
Richard Dreyfuss is hot shot pilot Pete, always pushing the limit as his bomber loaded with fire extinguisher soars through the blazing trees.
The airborne and on-the-ground firefighting sequences are excellent. If you've seen "1941" you know Spielberg can stage airplanes flying in low and breaking through smoke and debris. Working with ILM, nobody does it better.
When Pete lands after nearly running his fuel tanks to empty, his longtime girl and fellow pilot/air traffic supervisor Dorinda (Holly Hunter) and best friend Al (John Goodman) are furious. He can't tempt fate forever.
Enter Brad Johnson as a flying singing telegram pilot, Ted Baker. She's so pissed at Pete that Dorinda all but ignores Ted, but he notices her.
Pete woos Dorinda with presents and romance and she reluctantly forgives him for his hot dog antics in the cockpit. It's a happy birthday, even though Pete's got the wrong date.
Dreyfuss and Hunter are an odd mix in the romance department. She's a firecracker and no one does firecracker like Hunter (Broadcast News, The Incredibles) but even these two actors can't sell something with no chemistry. It's pretty awkward.
Only when"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" starts playing and Hunter walks down the stairs in a stunning dress Pete's surprised her with, did I buy these two....the power of music!
Pete presses his luck one too many times in the air, performing an undeniably life saving act. His plane explodes in a ball of fire and he's soon walking through a burned countryside, and a wheat field, learning from a woman named Hap that he's died and it's his turn to go back to Earth and help someone there.
Hap is played by Audrey Hepburn is her last big screen role. She's terrific in a small role, trying to convince Pete that he must be selfless when he returns.
Back on Earth, some time has passed, Dorinda is a mess and Al works to bring her back in the fold training the forest firefighters. Ted reappears and feels the same spark for Dorinda.
Hovering over them both is Pete, invisible to them but there for us to see. It's a balancing act as a viewer that never quite finds the right tone, with Dreyfuss making goofy jokes one moment and then crying in anguish when he realizes there may be a romance budding between "his girl" and Ted.
Based on the film "A Guy Named Joe" written by the legendary Dalton Trumbo, the bones of the film are strong, but it feels like Spielberg is in full schmaltz mode. Between this film and his next, "Hook", he feels trapped trying to deliver maximum heart. As it did in that film, some of the emotions feel forced, leaving several strong pieces of the story as side notes.
Marg Helgenberger (CSI) is terrific as Rachel, a team member madly in love with Ted. She's funny and sweet, and barely noticed. Goodman's Al is funny, but Goodman plays him very broadly, smashing you over the head with both the goofy and angry sides of his role. It's a fine line that Goodman only finds later in the film.
I never understood why Johnson didn't become a bigger star. He's terrific in his biggest screen role. The film did ok, doubling its budget at the box office, but Johnson never built on his launch. He's got screen presence to spare, but audiences took a pass.
The film nearly completely derails with Dorinda's decisions in the big action scene that wraps up the film. No spoilers, but ask yourself:
Would she really do that?
Does it make any logical sense the way its portrayed?
Spielberg, as you'd expect, stages it powerfully and you can feel the flames trying to envelope the bomber. John Williams music score builds and it all seems to come together, but the emotions feel manufactured.
I enjoyed parts of it, but it's lesser Spielberg for me. Not anywhere as bad as "Hook" but never climbing above the treeline to anywhere above the bottom half of Spielberg's films.
When it's in the air, ALWAYS soars, but it spends way too much time on the ground to earn anything above a C.