In its very first scene, City of Angels resorts to the kind of cliche that its source material, the meditative German fantasy Wings of Desire, so completely eschewed. A little child is dying, and an angel in a long dark coat arrives in the room to accompany the girl on her journey into the next world. The afterlife is, of course, symbolized by a bright white light at the end of a hallway.
The sole saving grace is that the ethereal “messenger” here is Nicolas Cage, whose dark beauty easily suggests a lithe angel of death. He has a hard time, however, conveying the sort of abiding wisdom that would befit somebody whose been hanging around since God created the universe. He seems, instead, confused (not to mention a little creepy). Maybe it makes sense that an angel should remain, in a way, forever young, always capable of being impressed by and becoming involved with the daily machinations of human lives.
How else to explain angel Seth’s sudden and inexplicable attraction to pretty heart surgeon Maggie Rice, played effortlessly by Meg Ryan (who has “pretty” down to a T)? OK, he’s impressed by her perky dedication to life, and he’s touched by her sorrow over losing a patient after literally holding his heart in her hands. But surely Seth has encountered countless such dedicated humanfolk before, right? I guess we’re expected to chalk it up to love at first sight, but Seth’s awe-struck manner in Maggie’s presence resembles a post-adolescent crush or psychotic fixation rather than the discovery of a soul mate. When Seth makes himself visible to Maggie and starts stalking her around the hospital, he’s lucky she doesn’t just belt him one and call the police.
Instead, she’s mesmerized. And once Seth learns from flabby ex-angel Nathan Messinger (Dennis Franz), whose surname is indicative of this movie’s crushing lack of subtlety, that it’s possible to trade in a pair of angel wings for a mortal human soul, it’s clear that he won’t be able to resist the lure of the flesh.
And there, more or less, is your story. Naturally, Maggie already has a doctor boyfriend who insists that they’re right for each other because they’re so much the same. The lesson she learns from Seth is that opposites attract, and City of Angels shares Wings of Desire‘s nigh-spiritual reverence for the way that women and men fit together, both emotionally and physically. It also borrows the German film’s best images, dwelling on angels’ eye views of the city and matter-of-factly positioning the angels atop construction sites, highway signs, and billboards. Just as in the earlier film, the angels like to congregate at the library, basking in the collected chronicles of all human existence. A new twist, California-style, is that they also gather at the beach. John Seale’s photography is truly majestic (he shot The English Patient), but the imagery is so calculated that I kept wanting the angels to break up into volleyball teams just to fracture the self-conscious solemnity. A lighter touch would have made a big difference.
City of Angels bears the end-credit dedication, “For Dawn.” Producer Dawn Steel, who optioned Wings of Desire upon its U.S. release, died in Los Angeles on December 20 after struggling for a year with a brain tumor, and it’s impossible to separate the production of this film from her impending death. That may go a long way toward explaining why City of Angels gets a weepy ending that’s more maudlin even than Titanic‘s. Screenwriter Dana Stevens (Blink) and director Brad Silberling (Casper), sophomores both, have crafted a movie that’s meant to be a tribute to our memories of people we’ve loved, and to the joys of being alive. But in slavishly second-guessing the mass audience and piling cliches on top of cliches — “It’s like Touched by an Angel in the E.R.” — they’ve instead created an unconvincing new age melodrama that plays like Death and Dying for Dummies.
Directed by Brad Silberling
Written by Dana Stevens
Based on Der Himmel Uber Berlin (Wings of Desire) by Wim Wenders
Cinematography by John Seale
Edited by Lynzee Klingman
Music by Gabriel Yared
Starring Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, and Dennis Franz
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)