Steven Spielberg admits to a soft spot for A Guy Named Joe, a 1943 weepie starring Spencer Tracy as an ace pilot who dies in action and returns as a spirit with a mission: to comfort the girl he left behind (Irene Dunne) and inspire a young hotshot (Van Johnson) to take his place in the air and in Dunne’s heart. The film was a huge favorite with World War II audiences, and no wonder. Bereavement was a fact of life, and the film propagandized, sentimentally but effectively, about eternal love and the necessity of getting on with life and winning a war.
In this reworking, Spielberg makes several miscalculations, none more calamitous than updating the story for the Eighties. The screenplay, started by Diane Thomas (Romancing the Stone) — who was killed in a car crash — and finished by Jerry Belson, removes the wartime setting and substitutes pilots battling forest fires for daredevils in combat. Joe spoke to a nation’s sorrow; Always lacks a similar sense of scope or urgency.
Then there’s the casting. Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter have the Tracy and Dunne roles. They are fine, fiercely modern actors, and there’s the rub. Dreyfuss’ hip line readings and Hunter’s feminist spunk work against the old-fashioned appeal of the romance. Rodeo cowboy turned actor Brad Johnson is hunkish window dressing, little more, in the underwritten Van Johnson part.
With Spielberg, though, no film is a total loss. The action scenes are excitingly staged, tears are jerked masterfully, and the supporting cast boasts two winners. John Goodman plays Dreyfuss’ buddy with humor and poignancy; he’s developing into the best character actor in the business. And in a cameo as the heavenly sage who sends Dreyfuss back to earth, Audrey Hepburn is incandescent. Her dialogue is treacle, but she sells it with an effortless grace that shows why she is still a legend at sixty. Hepburn’s brief appearance can’t fill the void in Always, but her movie-star magic demonstrates precisely what the rest of the film is missing.