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Salt Lake City Weekly Bored by an Angel

As hard as it tries to be heavy, "City of Angels" is a lightweight.

By Mary Dickson

APRIL 27, 1998:  The late Dawn Steel was so moved when she saw Wim Wenders' 1987 Wings of Desire that she and her husband secured the rights to adapt the German film about an angel who grows weary of comforting mortals and chooses to become one instead.

Despite the best of the intentions, but not surprisingly, the Americanized version falls way short. It's a cloying and pretentious imitation that wants desperately to be profound but doesn't know how to pull it off.

Casting blockbuster stars Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan may help at the box office, but it doesn't do much for the film itself, particularly since the stars are painfully miscast. If you've seen Nicholas Cage's drippy-eyed look of benevolent wonder in the trailers, you've seen the entire scope and breadth of his performance in City of Angels.

Apart from a rare smile, his expression never changes. It's always that same wide-eyed, dreamy look of awe. It's like watching someone who's been so heavily sedated he can only smile benignly at those less fortunates who haven't had the benefit of a morphine drip. This isn't acting, it's posturing. We know Cage is capable of far more, so I guess we must blame the director. That touched-by-an-angel look is apparently what Brad Silberling was after, though for the most part Cage simply looks touched.

Cage plays the Angel Seth, who wanders the city of Los Angeles with other angels in black. They gather on the beach at sunrise and sunset to stare into the surf; hang out at the library, listen to the thoughts of mortals; and dangle from high places, awed by the world beneath them.

As in Wenders' ethereal work, these angels roam the planet in silence, comforting the earthbound and guiding them out of life when the time comes. They've never been human themselves, so pain, hunger, pleasure and all the other earthly sensations are both foreign and fascinating to them. Hence, that look of constant wonder. Twenty minutes into this film, you'll want to slap it off Cage's face.

City of Angels
Directed by
Brad Silberling
Starring
Nicholas Cage
Meg Ryan
Meg Ryan, in another bit of miscasting, plays a no-nonsense cardiothoracic surgeon named Maggie who becomes the mortal object of Seth's obsession. Meg Ryan a heart surgeon? A dermatologist, maybe, but not a heart surgeon. That requires as great a leap of faith as believing in angels. You're always aware you're watching Meg Ryan.

It's while operating on a patient, heart in her hands, that Maggie first sees the Angel Seth. Their eyes lock in what is the first of many lingering eye locks. Of course, it's bad news when Seth shows up. That means someone's going to die. In this case, Maggie's patient. Seth lends the exiting soul a hand, the monitor goes static, and he's gone. This loss throws Maggie into a crisis of self-doubt, driving her to ponder the meaning of her very existence and her own power as a doctor. What if her patients' fates are completely out of her hands?

While she's having an existential crisis, Seth is having one of his own. He's fallen for this mere mortal. He can make himself visible to her, he can touch her, but he can never truly be with her. Maggie also finds herself falling in love with the strange man in black. The way he looks right into her soul gives her shivers and makes her realize how inadequate her doctor boyfriend is. City of Angels is moody and somewhat ethereal, thanks largely to the mesmerizing visuals of the photography, but it is lighter than Wings of Desire. There are comic moments, though not all of them intentional, such as when Maggie asks Seth, "Are you married? Homeless? A drummer?"

"No," he deadpans, "I'm a messenger of God."

A messenger of God, Seth discovers, has free will, which means he can choose to be mortal. Should he fall to Earth and give up the security and ease of eternity for the doctor? What is he willing to sacrifice to be a real live boy? Is life—or in this case, a night with Meg Ryan—worth the fear, the pain and the hunger?

City of Angels should have been a moving love story. Two beings—one mortal and one immortal—so impossibly in love, they will sacrifice all to be together. Unfortunately, the overwhelming passion that is so crucial to making this film work falls flat because there is zippo chemistry between Ryan and Cage. You never feel their passion nor longing, which they express primarily through those drawn-out gazes.

Furthermore, Cage's character is so creepy, he'd more likely spook a rationalist like Maggie than spark her undying love. If a man in a long black coat with glazed eyes followed you around staring at you, wouldn't you be a wee bit concerned? This romance never clicks.

By the time the film reaches its melodramatic conclusion, you've already guessed what's going to happen: It's the final heavy-handed slam in a film that wants desperately to be a profound philosophical and spiritual exploration of love, God, life and death. It's not surprising that we're seeing TV series like Touched By an Angel or films like City of Angels. American culture has become so empty that people are looking desperately for something to fill the void and lend meaning.

In its own shallow way, City of Angels tries to answer the deeper questions of life, reaffirming a heaven, a God, angels and a hereafter, which may lend comfort to the easily comforted and offer a quasi-religious experience for a modern audience that has abandoned hope and too easily dismisses faith.

"People don't believe in us anymore," Seth sighs to a fellow angel. City of Angels wants to let people believe again. Unfortunately, as visually interesting as it is, as hard as it tries to be heavy, as much as it wants to be a victory of faith, in the end it's a lightweight product of its own culture.


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