One From the Heart
Getting it on with a heavenly being must be just about the ultimate New Age sexual fantasy--so City of Angels is like soft-core for New Agers. That, and the current taste for schmaltz in the Titanic vein, could make City of Angels a hit, just as the sentimentality of modern-day angel lore made an art-house hit out of Wings of Desire, the interminable Wim Wenders film from which it's adapted.
In that wildly overrated movie, angel Bruno Ganz poked endlessly around Berlin observing dour Germans, and somehow arrived at the conclusion that human life was a real nonstop party. The American version is set in L.A., and its hero is considerably more glam than the schlumpy Ganz. Nicolas Cage may never have looked more romantically beautiful than he does in City of Angels as Seth, a black-clad angel who lives in the Los Angeles County Library.
Seth and a host of similarly clad colleagues hang around the L.A. area, observing mortal activities and reporting them to each other. His duties also seem to include guiding the recent dead to the afterlife, invisibly comforting the bereaved, and asking each departing soul what he or she liked best about earthly life, like some sort of cosmic marketing survey.
Seth falls in love with heart surgeon Maggie (Meg Ryan) after he witnesses her inexplicably lose a patient on the operating table, and--against usual angelic policy--makes himself visible so that he can flirt with her. Maggie's highly responsive to him, although I couldn't help feeling that in real life, a woman would call security if a man talked so peculiarly to her, no matter how gorgeous he was--when she asks him what he does, he replies, "I'm a messenger of God," and she smiles, charmed. Seth, understandably encouraged by her flexibility, decides to exercise his option to "take the plunge" and become mortal in order to be with her.
The best joke in the languid Wings of Desire was its suggestion that Peter Falk, playing himself, was a former angel who had taken the plunge into mortality; it was Falk who made the case to Ganz for human life's simple sensual pleasures, such as rubbing your hands together on a cold day. In City of Angels, the rough equivalent of Falk's role is played by Dennis Franz, not, alas, as himself, but as an appetite-driven construction worker whose zest for living further spurs on Seth to join the human race.
The first half of Wings of Desire was in black and white (exquisitely shot by Robby Muller), because the Berlin angels couldn't see color. City of Angels is steeped in the bold primary colors of cinematographer John Seale from the beginning; when Seth finally takes the mortal plunge, it comes as a surprise that he doesn't recognize the color red. Mainstream American audiences simply won't accept black-and-white movies, so Seth's visual impairment hasn't been established.
For all these limitations, City of Angels was still easier to sit through than Wings of Desire. It's less numbingly paced, the dialogue--by Dana Stevens--isn't quite so faux-Rilke, and the plot leads somewhere. There are some nice visual jokes, too, like a surgical tech tossing a copy of People magazine into a waste container marked BIOHAZARD; or an angel sitting invisibly between two kids, all three staring slack-jawed at a Roadrunner cartoon.
And then there's Cage's star power. His long, horselike face is lit up with a beatifically zonked smile. This higher being is probably his most purely Californian creation since his early hunk role in Valley Girl--you can almost hear an awestruck "Whoa, dude!" implicit in every soft-spoken line he says.
Ryan doesn't fare as well, and it isn't all her fault. Much of her dialogue is unplayably insipid, but she's also miscast. Skilled as she is at dizzy comedy--she was wonderful in the underrated French Kiss--she's no more authoritative as a heart surgeon than she was as a military helicopter pilot in Courage Under Fire. I'd trust plenty of women to cut my chest open or pilot a helicopter I was riding in, but Ryan just isn't among them.
City of Angels is one of those movies, like Field of Dreams or Cocoon, in which a supernatural dilemma irrelevant to the experience of most of us is presented literally, without any subtext which might give it relevance. It's a silly film, but it's not really much sillier than Wings of Desire--it's just less artsy. It's a slick Americanization, which in this case is an improvement.
City of Angels
Directed by Brad Silberling.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.