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'Always' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 22, 1989

The heavens part and angels' feathers scatter as daredevils buck the sky in "Always," Steven Spielberg's sleepy update of a Spencer Tracy wartime fantasy. Boiling clouds and barrel-rolling aside, there's more drag than lift as this sweetly sluggish romantic adventure struggles to get airborne in the 1990s.

The tale is based on "A Guy Named Joe," a 1943 romance about a downed fighter pilot who earns his halo, and its pathos is diminished in its new setting -- a smoke-jumpers' camp somewhere in Montana. It's still the story of a hotshot who goes down fighting, but he's dumping chemicals on pine trees, not fighting Nazis. A worthy mission, yes, but hardly as visceral.

In his third outing with Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss plays Pete, the ace who races the wind to quench the raging forest fires. He flies by the seat of his pants, regularly easing in on a wing and a prayer and a gasp of fuel. Holly Hunter, that little spitfire, co-stars as his best girl Dorinda, a tower control worker who begs him to take a safer job as a flight instructor. He does agree to hang up his helmet after one more flight, but God has other ideas.

One minute Pete is rescuing his good friend Al (jolly John Goodman), the next he's getting a haircut, a ludicrous introduction to the seraph Hap (Audrey Hepburn, stern in a white cable-knit sweater). Babbling something about the breath of the gods, Hap tells Pete that basically he's grounded, that he must inspire another to greatness before ascending to higher realms.

So it is that he becomes the guardian angel of Ted (Brad Johnson), a clumsy but drop-dead handsome fledgling who has fallen in love with darling Dorinda. Oh, dear. And the true purpose of his mission, he now realizes, is to release her from her promise to be his, "always." But overcome with his lasting affection, he haunts her instead. "I'll never leave you again," he says.

Clearly Spielberg wanted to give us "It's a Wonderful Life" with propellers. Alas, our spirits are not elevated as they are and were in that redemptive perennial, a story of one man's renewed faith in the value of his life. In despair, George Bailey tried to commit suicide, but Pete's nose dive was unintentional. He was happy alive and doesn't seem to mind being dead, whistling the "Leave It to Beaver" theme as he strolls along. His only sin, it seems, was failing to say "I love you" to the woman he loved. Well, actually he did, but she couldn't hear him over the engines.

What's with the heavenly hosts? Is it a slow day in paradise? Given the pointlessness of this exercise, Hap would be better off dusting harp strings. As screenwriter Jerry Belson's facilitator, she places the hero, and the rest of us, in an emotional purgatory full of guff and daisies. "To get freedom, you must give it," she tells Pete, who is foiling a romance between Dorinda and Ted. He loves her so much, he just can't let her go.

Alas, we never believed in the passion in the first place. While Hunter is a bundle of boyish energy and sisterly sensuality, and Dreyfuss is jaunty as a cricket on a skillet, the only thing on fire is the evergreens. The love scenes play more like NFL touchdown celebrations. They just about bust a gasket, they work so hard.

When Dreyfuss's character finally crashes, a foregone conclusion for all but the densest viewers, the unwinding yarn gathers air speed. It actually glides when Dorinda begins to take an interest in Ted, who is so gorgeous he "looks like somebody I won in a raffle," she says. Johnson, a great big beautiful hunk of cowboy flesh, makes his movie debut as Ted. A boy-watcher's find, he proves an endearing comic presence, and maybe even a good actor.

There's a sweetness to his scenes with Hunter, a natural easy feeling compared with the rest of the cast, who are flapping with all their might, trying not to fall out of the sky. They're like a flock of starlings chittering from a tree.

Belson's screenplay affords plenty of gushy speechifying but has nothing profound to say. Certainly we should be leaving with swollen eyes, full hearts and sodden hankies, but our hearts are as empty as this long stretch of celluloid. There are fleeting incantations of the old Spielberg magic, a splatter of stars, an oracular old hobo in a deserted Quonset hut, but the alchemy is unsustained.

"Always" is an unfulfilled promise, a plummeting dove. What was perhaps a comfort to the widows of World War II evolves today as a fable for the sensitive male. "I should have told you that I love you, Dorinda," says Pete, reminding us that sensitive guys go right to heaven, or something like that. Life goes on. Spielberg has given us celestial entertainment in the past, but even angels have trouble when dancing on the head of a pin.

Always is rated PG-13.

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