Film: Angelic Disorders

The cultural seismographs of Hollywood have finally registered the Third Great Awakening: City of Angels, a tearjerker about a soulful-looking angel who falls in love with a perky heart surgeon, blew Titanic out of the top box-office slot. No doubt this is the film industry’s idea of divine intervention—James Cameron, the writer-director-producer of Titanic, was showing signs of hubris in the wake of his near-clean sweep of this year’s Oscars—but moviegoers who attend church more than once a year are unlikely to be fooled by City of Angels, which is to religion what a Big Mac is to steak.

Religion isn’t the only thing that gets ground up in City of Angels, an adaptation of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’ much-admired 1987 movie about an angel who longs to know what it’s like to be human. Remakes of good foreign films are almost always vapid, and this one is no exception. “I love Wings of Desire,” says Dana Stevens, who wrote the screenplay for City of Angels, “and I felt I could capture its essence.” Translated from the original Hollywoodese, that sentence reads: We kept the basic idea but dumbed everything else down. In the process of rendering Wenders’s quirky, poignant fantasy safe for consumption by American teenagers, Stevens and Brad Silberling, the director of City of Angels, jettisoned everything that made Wings of Desire memorable in the first place. Comparing the two films is thus a meaningless exercise in pedantry: City of Angels should be judged on its own treacly terms.

The film’s opening line (“I don’t really pray, but if you could just help me out here….”—a nice touch, but don’t get your hopes up) is spoken by a terrified mother unaware that her dying child is being watched over by a fashionably black-clad angel named Seth (Nicolas Cage). It subsequently emerges that Seth is one of a host of guardian angels whose duties range from comforting the sick to persuading small-time crooks not to shoot convenience-store clerks; when not on duty, they hang out atop tall buildings and chat about the day’s work, gathering on the beach at sunrise and sunset to listen to the music of the spheres. It sounds like a wonderful life, but there’s trouble in paradise: Seth has developed a morbid fascination with the pleasures of the flesh, and no sooner does he meet Maggie (Meg Ryan), who is in despair because one of her patients has died on the operating table, than he realizes that he loves her. Nothing that happens from this moment on is even slightly unexpected, least of all the ending, in which Seth, having voluntarily surrendered his place in the angelic order so as to become Maggie’s earthly lover, is left alone to face his mortality when she is killed in a car accident.

The one surprising thing about City of Angels is its dogged earnestness: Not only does the script hedge no bets as regards the question of God’s existence, but it goes so far as to implicitly criticize the spiritual emptiness of its mortal characters. Maggie, for instance, is an agnostic, but though she listens to Jimi Hendrix in the operating room and makes flippant remarks about religion, the brightly skeptical facade with which she faces the world cannot conceal her growing sense of anguish at the apparent meaninglessness of her life. Her boyfriend, sensing that she is starting to have doubts about doubt, testily warns her not to become “one of those doctors who prays in the O.R.” (Talk about telegraphing your punches.)

Hollywood has been seeking in recent years to capitalize on the angst with which the baby boomers are confronting middle age, but City of Angels is the first movie to place their anxieties in an explicitly religious context, and for that reason alone it is more interesting than, say, Lawrence Kasdan’s unbearably fatuous Grand Canyon. Alas, City of Angels is forever bumping up against its own shallowness. Much is made of Seth’s unfulfilled longing to experience the goodness of God’s bounty—to taste a pear, or feel the wind on his face—but in the end, the film’s real message is that having sex with a movie star in a really expensive house on Lake Tahoe is worth giving up heaven for. Sex, in fact, is the whole point of City of Angels (and also the source of its fundamental conceptual flaw: If sex is that good, why are there any angels left at all?). That’s what makes the religious angle so smarmy: right from the start, you know there’s no way Maggie and Seth aren’t going to end up in bed together, with Gabriel Yared’s violin-enriched New Age score pumping up the sugar count in the background.

To the limited extent that City of Angels works, it’s because of its cast, and particularly because of Meg Ryan. The star of When Harry Met Sally…. and Sleepless in Seattle once seemed doomed to become the Doris Day of the ’90s, but her spunkiness is firmly under control here, and she actually contrives to suggest the sort of woman whom a moderately depressed man might not necessarily want to strangle. Nicolas Cage is good, too, though his own tendency toward self-caricature is starting to get out of hand—he looks more like a cocker spaniel than ever. Dennis Franz, who showed us his bare buttocks in the first episode of NYPD Blue, does so again as a surf-loving fallen angel who urges Seth to exercise his free will and take the plunge; fortu¬nately, Franz is a fine actor, as is Andre Braugher, another TV cop trying to make it in the movies (he’s from “Homicide”), who gets much more out of the ungrateful role of Seth’s angelic partner than the makers of City of Angels put into it.

But good acting can never do more than provide a veneer of plausibility for a bad script, though the failings of City of Angels are less repellent than sad.  More Americans are talking and thinking about religion now than at any previous time in the past quarter-century, and they appear to be doing so in direct response to the widespread feeling that something has gone terribly wrong with our culture. Yet few seem prepared to change their lives in response to the call of faith, much less to boldly assert the universal validity of the commandments in which they claim to believe. (Nothing says more about the children of the baby boomers than their oft-repeated motto, “Whatever.”) Small wonder such uncertain folk are flocking to see a movie that simultaneously asserts the existence of life after death and the superiority of flesh over spirit. Do we contradict ourselves? Very well, then, we contradict ourselves! What could be more American? Or more consoling?

It is surely no accident that for all its ostensible anti-materialism, everything about City of Angels looks fabulously expensive, especially John Seale’s swoopy, self-consciously beautiful cinematography. Every third shot seems to have been made from a helicopter, including the one in which we see an angel perched on the famous HOLLYWOOD sign. This scene sums up City of Angels, in which Hollywood’s version of religion is expounded with the force of epiphany: You can’t take it with you, so why not enjoy it now, then produce big-budget movies about how it didn’t make you happy?

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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