Friday April 10, 1998
Like most cinematic love stories, "City of Angels" starts with a misunderstanding. A major misunderstanding.
When plucky L.A. heart surgeon Dr. Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan) first runs into the dishy Seth (Nicolas Cage) in a hospital corridor, she thinks she's meeting a great-looking guy with deep, soulful eyes. But while Seth is undeniably attractive, he is not the man of her or anyone else's dreams. He's not a man at all; in fact, he's . . . an angel.
While having an angel for a suitor may sound dreamy (think of the high-powered backrubs you could get), messengers, as they call themselves, turn out to be problematic in the romance department. They're not human, never were, so they exist without feelings of any kind. They spend their time just out of our sight, providing comfort, guiding the dead and acting like, yes, angels.
The idea of an angel who was tempted to give it all up for love did not originate with screenwriter Dana Stevens but rather German writer-director Wim Wenders. His 1987 "Wings of Desire," winner of the best director award at Cannes and beautifully shot by then 78-year-old master cinematographer Henri Alekan, is one of those foreign language films with a small but devoted following, though most Americans have not even heard of it.
"City of Angels" does not attempt to directly remake "Wings of Desire," a wise choice given how poetic, ethereal and determinedly nonnarrative that film was. Wenders himself says he considers his original to be no more than "a point of departure" for the new film (which he has publicly sanctioned) and that is probably the best way to look at it.
Still, with commercial echoes of the Demi Moore / Patrick Swayze-starring "Ghost" colliding with the spirit of rarefied European art cinema, "City of Angels" is in fact a fascinating hybrid. A Hollywood fantasy at its most fantastic, the film is equal parts true innocence and shameless calculation. Deciding whether the glass is half empty or half full depends on which part you are willing to embrace.
Certainly much has been done to make "City of Angels" as artistic as possible. While the material is by nature sentimental and romantic, Stevens' script is as literate and understated as the situation allows, Cage and Ryan do excellent work with it, and cinematographer John Seale (last year's Oscar winner for "The English Patient") succeeds in making Los Angeles look positively otherworldly.
Brad Silberling, whose only previous directing credit was "Casper," as in the Friendly Ghost, was an unexpected choice for this assignment. But he turns out to have been a shrewd selection, as only someone who believed absolutely in the norms of Hollywood could have any hope of turning this kind of rarefied material into a commercial undertaking.
Yet, despite all this good work, "City of Angels" remains a film that succeeds largely to the extent that audiences, eager to suspend disbelief, want it to going in. As slick as it is sincere, and burdened by a second half that is more schematic than it needs to be, this film is calculated to do many things, but softening the hearts of cynics and scoffers is not one of them.
Building on the visual imagery of Wenders' film, "City of Angels" does a haunting job of creating a lifestyle and a look for its heavenly creatures. Prone to perching above L.A. on things like freeway signs and Sunset Strip billboards, angels like Seth's buddy Cassiel (Andre Braugher) meet at the ocean's edge twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, to hear the music of the spheres. They spend a lot of time at the main library (San Francisco's dazzling new one was the location used), an ideal spot to hone in on people's thoughts.
For angels, who meet people only after they've died and are themselves invisible to mortals unless they choose to be otherwise, occasionally tire of their spiritual existence and display curiosity about what it's like to be human, about what touch feels like and what taste is all about. Not to mention romantic love.
When Seth, at work in an operating room calling a heart surgery patient to the next world, accidentally locks eyes with Dr. Maggie Rice, those vague longings take on a more concrete focus. And when Dr. Rice, an excellent surgeon, has a loss of confidence because of losing that patient, Seth is moved to allow her to see him so he can help her through her malaise.
So begins a highly unorthodox courtship. Seth can hear Maggie's most intimate thoughts, but because he's not human he feels next to nothing about them. He also can materialize at will wherever Maggie is. This turns him into something like a sensitive, solicitous stalker, boyish, eager and with a peculiar curiosity about the facts of human life.
Because of the nature of the material, both leads have to rely more than usual on their core personas. Cage has the presence needed to play this part, and he has the gravity to keep his constant questions from turning silly. And Ryan, once again, as she did in "Courage Under Fire," takes her innate likability to the challenging area of a driven doctor who has to question everything she thought she believed. Less successful is Dennis Franz, whose role (based on Peter Falk's in the Wenders film) as a patient of Maggie's who knows a few things about Seth's dilemma and the possible ways out of it, is on the overdone side.
Once Seth makes his decision, "City of Angels" takes turns that work against the originality it strives for. But if the film is not quite all there, it is closer than we might expect. Attractive as well as off-putting, it manages to leave a pleasant afterglow for those in the mood for its kind of loving.
City of Angels, 1998. PG-13 for sexuality, including language and some nudity. An Atlas Entertainment production, in association with Regency Enterprises, released by Warner Bros. Director Brad Silberling. Producers Dawn Steel, Charles Roven. Executive producers Arnon Milchan, Robert Cavallo, Charles Newirth. Screenplay Dana Stevens. Cinematographer John Seale. Editor Lynzee Klingman. Costumes Shay Cunliffe. Music Gabriel Yared. Production design Lilly Kilvert. Art director John O. Warnke. Set decorator Gretchen Rau. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. Nicolas Cage as Seth. Meg Ryan as Maggie. Dennis Franz as Messinger. Andre Braugher as Cassiel. Colm Feore as Jordan. Robin Bartlett as Anne.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times