In the title role of "Michael," a beguiling, joyous holiday comedy, John Travolta has a great entrance. Paunchy, unshaven, wearing only shorts, he clomps down the staircase of an old house in the middle of a venerable Iowa motel owned by an eccentric widow (Jean Stapleton). Oh yes, he's also sporting a pair of sizable white-feathered wings.
Eagerly waiting to meet him are a team dispatched from a Chicago-based supermarket tabloid by its volatile editor (Bob Hoskins): a cynical ex-Chicago Tribune star reporter (William Hurt), a good-natured staff photographer (Robert Pastorelli), the photographer's dog (who is the paper's mascot), and a purported angel expert--an aspiring country singer-composer (Andie MacDowell). Whether or not Michael, who says he is in fact the Archangel Michael, who dispatched Lucifer from heaven, is for real or a fraud, the journalists are to bring him back to Chicago for the tabloid's big Christmas story.
Director Nora Ephron and her co-writers, sister Delia plus Pete Dexter and Jim Quinlan (the latter two wrote the original story), bring a smart contemporary sensibility to the hokum, hilarity and heart-tugging that have made for many a classic Hollywood entertainment.
It's a consistently inspired blend of fantasy, romantic comedy and road movie as the quartet makes its way by car from Iowa to Illinois. As the journey unfolds it becomes clear that the Ephrons, Dexter and Quinlan have also written some lovely roles in which the cast is most winning.
Indeed, "Michael" might well prove to be as phenomenal as "Phenomenon" for Travolta, who brings out all the sweetness and earthiness in the angel--of course, we believe he's an angel--in one delicious scene after another. When he's not dancing, barroom brawling, coming on to waitresses or fighting a bull, he's boasting about his creations: e.g., marriage, waiting in line ("Before that, everybody milled around") and even pie.
His exuberant message is simplicity itself: Enjoy life to the fullest. For all his boisterousness, he's a subtle maneuverer, as Hurt's Quinlan and MacDowell's Dorothy, a most attractive couple, are falling in love before they know it. Pastorelli is a thoroughly engaging sidekick, Stapleton a delight and Teri Garr a boldly arbitrary small-town judge.
Ephron knows how to make every element of the film work for her, for on one level "Michael" is an appealing homage to roadside Americana. The mood of amusing nostalgia is reinforced by Randy Newman's exhilarating score, which incorporates lots of apt standards and a song that's just right for the circumstances: "Heaven Is My Home," which he's heard singing with Valerie Carter. It's not for nothing that those knowledgeable chroniclers of vintage American pop culture, Jane and Michael Stern, get thanks in the end credits.
Production designer Dan Davis and his associates have done such a spot-on job in re-creating that Americana that the script never has to refer to anything beyond Michael's longing to see the world's biggest ball of twine or the largest nonstick frying pan. In turn, John Lindley's fluid cinematography is wisely unobtrusive: What with lots of starry acting amid nostalgic settings there's lots going on visually at all times.
Early on Michael explains that he can't change the nature of the world, that he can only perform "small miracles." "Michael," which could so easily have been too silly or too sugary, is itself a small miracle.
* MPAA rating: PG, for a mild barroom brawl, some language and sensuality. Times guidelines: The film is suitable for all ages.
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John Travolta: Michael
Andie MacDowell: Dorothy Winters
William Hurt: Frank Quinlan
Bob Hoskins: Vartan Malt
Robert Pastorelli: Huey Driscoll
Jean Stapleton: Pansy Milbank
Teri Garr: Judge Esther Newberg
A New Line Cinema release of a Turner Pictures presentation. Director Nora Ephron. Producers Sean Daniel, Nora Ephron, James Jacks. Executive producers Delia Ephron, Jonathan D. Crane. Screenplay by Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron and Pete Dexter & Jim Quinlan; from a story by Dexter & Quinlan. Cinematographer John Lindley. Editor Geraldine Peroni. Costumes Elizabeth McBride. Music Randy Newman. Production designer Dan Davis. Art director Michael Scheffe. Set designers Lauren Polizzi, Adele Plauche. Set decorator Tracey Doyle. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.