By Ralph Novak
Updated January 15, 1990 12:00 PM

Holly Hunter, Richard Dreyfuss

There’s plenty to admire in this Steven Spielberg reworking of the 1943 fantasy A Guy Named Joe.

Most notable is a charming—practically cuddly, in fact—performance by Hunter as a young airplane fanatic who works at a small Montana airport and lives with Dreyfuss, a daredevilish forest fire-fighting pilot. John (Roseanne) Goodman adds a burly sort of appeal as Dreyfuss’s flying buddy, and the flying and forest fire scenes display the kind of kinetic excitement and color that Spielberg generates with such apparent ease.

Those qualities only go so far, though, and after that the film starts to drag, then lapses right into being silly, maudlin and ghoulishly voyeuristic.

The plot has to do with Dreyfuss dying in a crash early on, then coming back as a ghost to help out a newcomer—Brad Johnson, in an engaging film debut. Complications come when Johnson and Hunter start getting romantically involved while Dreyfuss’s ghost (visible to the camera but not to them) breathes down their necks, spoiling things by offering suggestions they hear as their own thoughts.

Spielberg’s miscalculation was to forget that A Guy Named Joe responded to a most particular need. Coming in World War II, when young lives were so palpably precarious and the need for comforting illusions so great, it had a ready audience. These were Americans who, if not more naive than we are, were at least more willing to suspend their cynicism.

Fighting fires in Montana doesn’t translate into anything like World War II, and while there is a great bittersweetness in Dreyfuss’s longing for Hunter after he dies, there is also great foolishness in Audrey Hepburn’s embarrassing appearance as an angelic tour guide trying to steer Dreyfuss through the hereafter.

The screenplay—credited to Jerry (Fun with Dick and Jane) Belson—is mostly along the mega-sentimental lines of Hepburn’s comment about the afterlife that “The love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here.” There is too much serious-toned posthumous love story, not enough wit or perspective.

In any case, it doesn’t seem that the ghosts of Spencer Tracy, who had the Dreyfuss role in A Guy Named Joe, Victor (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind) Fleming, who directed it, or Dalton Trumbo, who wrote it, were hovering around Spielberg to offer much in the way of useful advice—unless they stayed away to keep Spielberg from getting more confused than he already is about the distinction between real life and life as seen in old movies. (PG-13)