Considering what an omnipresent force Steven Spielberg has been in the cinema since he broke through with Jaws in 1975, the relative anonymity of his 1989 romance Always engenders concern before one even pops it in the DVD player. There are underrated Spielberg films, sure, but unseen ones? The only Spielberg movie post-Jaws that I had not seen before this retrospective, Always was both my most eagerly anticipated watched and my most feared.
The film itself deserves neither reaction. Though my initial response in the film's early minutes bordered on total revulsion with its sub-1941 humor, Always pulls itself out of its tailspin ironically as its protagonist dies in a plane crash of his own. The pilot, Pete (Richard Dreyfuss), flies a converted A-26 bomber designed hold water for putting out forest fires that seem to rage every day in the same area. He's the best, and most reckless, flier in the squad, and invariably he returns to base to find his pilot wife, Dorinda (Holly Hunter), thrilled that he made it back alive and pissed that he seemingly does his best to do the opposite.
Their relationship is playful but deep, like two best friends who finally realized how right they were for each other. Pete constantly cracks funny jokes to make up for his somewhat boorish nature, while Dorinda's endless stream of corny one-liners balance a tough but bubbly personality. Pete can make a big show of her birthday despite getting the day wrong, mounting an increasingly impressive set of gestures that would only piss Dorinda off more. And then she can turn around and forgive him when he gets her a sparkling white dress -- "Girl clothes!" she says with her mouth so wide open in joy that whatever dirt she might have had left on her from the day rolls off her face. While much of the quasi-slapstick of the first act falls flat, Dreyfuss and Hunter convey such chemistry that they distract from a number of huge flaws around them. They're just so damn goofy that their adorable quality wins out.
A harrowing crash-landing that opens the film -- a misplaced scene that generates no tension -- Dorinda and the couple's friend Al (John Goodman, who inexplicably serves as a pilot of a plane with a cockpit he could never fit into) encourage Pete to give up this dangerous gig and take up a cozy position over in Flat Rock teaching the pilots who will eventually be sent to put out this incessant conflagration. The moment Dorinda, back home with Pete, launches into a monologue so intense and prophetic it may as well be a soliloquy delivered past her husband instead of to him, the film turns from its weak comedy to something more serious. So sudden is her change that Pete looked as stunned as I felt, and his cavalier attitude breaks in the face of her overwhelming fear. Then, of course, comes one last run, an emergency situation that requires Pete's skill.
For all the pyrotechnics involved, Pete's last flight feels oddly serene, an initially incongruous mood that works when Pete dives his plane over Al's to drop his payload on Al's burning engine and winds up setting his own plane on fire. Pete's last look is, as ever, lighthearted, a "What, me worry?" grin that disappears in a fireball. In a flash, Pete is gone, cutting his life short just as he was getting worthy of the audience's attention.
Ah, but when Pete shuffled off his mortal coil, it appears to have stuck to the bottom of his shoe like a rogue strand of toilet paper. He comes to in a strangely lush and untouched area of the charred forest where a old but beautiful woman (Audrey Hepburn, in her final big-screen part) waits and even cuts Pete's hair -- his first words after he fully comes to terms with his death are "Keep the sideburns." The woman, Hap, informs Pete that she was his guardian angel, and that he shall now counsel others, speaking around the next generation of pilots as the nagging voice in the back of their heads that advises them. Turns out he's going to be that instructor after all.
Here, Always fully picks up. Pete, rascal that he is, heads to Little Rock to guide the pilots, discovering Al has taken the open slot he wanted Pete to fill. He proves as impish in death as he was in life, shouting suggestions for pranks into the ears of those in his vicinity. At last, the comedy in this movie becomes funny, and even if the film suddenly suffers a severe lack of direction, the performances and dialogue ramps up and makes the proceedings tolerable.
To quickly bring together the various plot elements so as to avoid further summary and simply to cut through the meandering, the rest of the film plays thusly: Pete settles on being the angel for an ambitious young stud, Ted (Brad Johnson, who looks a bit like Josh Brolin only without that pesky talent), who appeared earlier in the film when all the pilots wanted to dance with Dorinda and he stared with that lovesick look in his eyes. Dorinda, Ted and Al end up in the same place, and Dorinda slowly starts a relationship with Ted. Pete has to watch this, because apparently one must be tortured into giving up one's vestiges of life before entering heaven. Or maybe God just likes cuckold porn.
OK, OK, I'm simplifying, but Always is such a vexing film. For everything it does right, something else drags, misfires or fails to find any concrete tone. Certain touches have a cleverness, even grace to them -- Pete and Dorinda classing it up by drinking their beer from champagne glasses, incorporeal Pete tricking Al into smearing his face with oil, Dorinda starting to write a "d" at the end of "Peter" so Ted's name appears in her husband's -- and the earnestness of both its romances are touching. But it's trying to be so many movies Spielberg loved as a kid that Always has all the structure of Jell-O. By the same token, Jell-O never falls apart, and the same holds true for the film.
If any one aspect of Spielberg's filmmaking has most caught my eye in this retrospective, it's the director's gift for lighting. When Dorinda jolts awake after having a nightmare of Pete dying, Spielberg cuts to Pete standing by a window in the pale moonlight, his bouncy countenance grows cold and distant. Compare that to the overwhelming orange that engulfs the frame when Pete, Al and, in the end, Dorinda, fly into the forest fires. Always is loosely based on the wartime melodrama A Guy Named Joe, and the explosions of cracking, spitting wood and sudden gush of heat allow the characters to feel like war heroes even when Al tries to get it through Pete's skull that what he's doing is not the same as charging into battle.
My favorite shot of the film captures Pete's attempt to let his wife move on as Dorinda sits in a crash-landed plane having stolen Ted's plane not only to prevent harm from coming to the second man she's loved but in a subconscious effort to kill herself in the same manner that took her husband. As Pete, finally matured through death, urges her to continue living and to find love again, Spielberg places Dorinda in the foreground with normal flesh tones and Pete just behind her. Yet the blackness that dominates the surrounding frame and the colder light on Pete alters the perspective, distancing Pete even as he sits right behind her, as if the director placed Dreyfuss in the background and used a telephoto lens to crush him against Hunter, emphasizing how close the couple are even in death but also Pete's decision to at last leave this world and free his wife. Always itself may be a mixed bag, but this is one of my favorite moments in any Spielberg film.
As a throwback to the melodramas of his youth, Always never manages to tie together its clashing moods of high romance, farce and intense longing, attitudes that those films could inexplicably contain. Though he fills the first act with broad sights such as the men on-base clamoring to wash their hands to dance with Dorinda in her beautiful dress, Spielberg cannot commit to the full spectrum of emotions expressed in a melodrama, afraid to go that far in a time when big and bold acting had long ago fallen out of style. Still, there's something to be said about the quiet delivery of a sappy line like "It's not the dress. It's the way you see me," a decision that makes the corniness of puppy-dog love into something deeper. Always features Spielberg's most subdued direction to this point, but here's a film that could have used his bombast. He was on the cusp on launching into his biggest attempt to be considered a serious filmmaker, but Always marks the first of a handful of entertainment features that exponentially grew in size as he temporarily purged himself of his desire to show people a good time. For that reason, Always marks yet another pendulum swing in the career of a director who could only oscillate so frantically between serious and lightweight because he's so good at both.