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SpielBLOG: Always – A Steven Spielberg Retrospective

Always is a first in more ways than one. All of the films I’ve watched so far for SpielBlog I’ve already seen. Most of them at the cinema. And most several times. And all of them – even 1941 – have had something in them worth watching. But I’d never seen Always and now I have, I wished I hadn’t.

A remake of Victor Fleming’s 1943 wartime comedy A Guy Named JoeAlways stars Richard Dreyfuss as Pete, an aviator who fights fires with the help of his pal Al (John Goodman) and pilot and dispatcher Dorinda (Holly Hunter). His risky heroics lead to his untimely death, but with the aid of an angelic Audrey Hepburn – in her final film role – he stalks Dorinda from beyond the grave, matchmaking her with Ted (former Marlboro Man Brad Johnson), a younger fitter, frankly more fuckable version of Pete. Creepy much?

So what’s wrong with it?

First of all the casting. Richard Dreyfuss had been perfect as Spielberg’s alter ego in Jaws and Close Encounters, but the boy wonder has aged badly, his face is stiff (I’m not saying from the cocaine, but from the cocaine) and his mannerisms – sudden comic shouting – feel just like that. There is zero chemistry between him and Holly Hunter. Their teasing kookiness is of the-punch-them-both-in-the-throat-they’re-so-annoying category. The hearty comedy falls flat. And the scenes in the firefighters camp which are explicitly designed to build a world around these two asexual lovebirds is filmed like a bad eighties commercial for the worst bar in the world. You want to see what Spielberg is trying to do, watch Only Angels Have Wings with Cary Grant. Howard Hawks got that roustabout humour and camaraderie through years of gambling and not giving a fuck. Spielberg still gets into a tizzy if he can’t match his socks.

The supernatural love story will have a massive success only a year later in Ghost, which will also feature a revival of an old standard song. But here as there’s no spark – no equivalent of the phallic potter’s wheel scene – then Dreyfuss’ loitering is genuinely perturbing. And the story is so thoughtlessly sexist. Dorinda needs to be completed by Pete or another version of Pete in Ted? She is a Tom Boy tough gal, until Pete buys her ‘girl clothes’. And Pete’s repetition of the phrase ‘that’s my girl’ is proprietorial in a way that is not good, if there could be any version of that sentence that turned out well.

​Luckily this charmless and boring film just isn’t good enough to be dangerous. And it’s so weird that Spielberg was coming off his most successful comedy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But perhaps this is a gender thing. With the last chapter of the Indy trilogy (yes, I’m still in denial), we had a bunch of men and boys and dads and granddads off having adventures. The one woman was a turncoat Nazi, so the essentially sexless comedy could go on, but here there is some sense that adults of both genders are supposed to be in relationships even if that is less believable than the Grail legend. Even a fine comedy actor like John Goodman is thoroughly wasted on a repeated lame gag about him having oil on his face. Come on! He was doing Roseanne at this time. There’s no way he couldn’t have contributed more. This is where being Spielberg begins to be a problem. Why are his collaborators not telling him this isn’t working? Why are some really talented people walking away from a project not having given their best? He can get anyone to play these parts – Audrey Hepburn for crying out loud – but are they really being used to their full potential? And worse yet this old Hollywood nostalgia is dragging a new Hollywood talent down.

Even the action scenes with the firefighting aeroplane feel inept for Spielberg. There are poor back projections and the actual fire scenes are unconvincing. All the heroism is so predictable. There’s practically no tension in the film once we know it isn’t going dark. Nothing to really care about once dying turns out to be not so bad.

At this point in his career, Spielberg can do anything he wants and Always was a long-cherished dream project. But you have to ask why? The original film – short of being old – isn’t particularly great and certainly doesn’t merit this kind of remake. The story – for what it is – feels contrived. It’s almost as if he wanted to remake A Matter of Life and Death but forgot the name of the film. Again, I think of better films from the same era, but not the inspiration for this.

In terms of the production, there has to be a lot of cocaine going on. And there’s a general air of lazy nostalgia for the 50s that was around from Levi’s adverts to Sam Cooke reissues. Spielberg’s affair with Holly Hunter during the filming might have also clouded his vision – it certainly didn’t transfer any passion to the screen. This might be another problem. The film is smothered by a nostalgia, a gloop of affection and adoration that doesn’t want to get its clothes messy but at the same time is so sticky, it’s impossible to not feel drenched. Like Pete, old movies haunt Spielberg’s vision and meddle with his edge. He should be killing these darlings and moving on from them. Ultimately, he’s better than the old movies that inspired him. Perhaps not the Howard Hawks/Michael Powell in the nether regions of his brain but this dross is dull. Nostalgia is a drug which is as dangerous as coke. And easily as addictive and destructive.

Unfortunately, the next film will also be a nostalgic dream project; will also criminally underuse comic talent and is also one I haven’t ever seen all the way through: Hook.

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