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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

City of Angels (review)

Touched by a Creep

How’s this for a pleasant thought? Dozens, probably hundreds of black-trenchcoated angels roam the streets of L.A. (and presumably everywhere else, too), eavesdropping on people’s thoughts and spying on them in the most intimate of settings. Oh, and harvesting their souls at the moment of death. Kinda makes you wanna keep looking over your shoulder, doesn’t it?

That’s the premise of City of Angels. Maybe it worked in the film on which this slick piece of Hollywood junk is based: Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, which I’ve yet to see. I’m guessing Wenders did make it work, based on the other work by him that I’ve enjoyed, like Until the End of the World and The End of Violence. Of course, Wenders didn’t have to deal with Nicolas Cage (from Con Air).
Cage simply cannot do ethereal. I can’t imagine anything he might do onscreen that would make me believe that he’s any sort of divine, supernatural anything. Here, though, we’re meant to buy that he’s an angel named Seth. He wanders around looking like a lost, beaten-up puppy, muttering awkward poetic things about the wind and the sunset, and stalking Dr. Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan, from Anastasia), with whom he’s fallen in love. I guess stalking is meant to be okay if you’re an angel, but he spies on her when she’s in the bath, for pete’s sake.

Only slightly less unbelievable is the concept of Meg Ryan as a heart surgeon. Cute and perky is about all she has had going for her, and cute and perky she ain’t here. Instead, she’s supposed to be tortured and intense, suffering from a crisis in confidence after a patient dies. Unfortunately, Ryan can no more convey intensity than Cage can unearthliness.

In typical Hollywood fashion, though, City of Angels isn’t really about Maggie the doctor and Seth the angel falling in love — it’s about watching two movie stars pretend to fall in love for our supposed entertainment. Somewhere, some exec said, “Hey, we haven’t thrown Meg and Nic together yet,” and City of Angels was spawned. It might have worked if there was even an iota of chemistry between these two. Which there isn’t.

“I’m a messenger of God,” Seth tells Maggie, straightfaced, when she, unaware of his true nature, asks him what he does for a living. Now, people who say things like this tend to have dynamite strapped to their bodies, and any normal person would exit the conversation at this point. Ah, but There’s Something About Him she finds compelling — unfortunately, the audience is never let in on the secret. Neither Cage nor Ryan can make us feel the pain, longing, and neediness that is allegedly drawing their characters together, so when the inevitable lovemaking scene rolls around, it’s not sexy — it’s kinda embarrassing to watch, like we can see they’re just acting.

Oh, and there’s so much more to hate. There’s the substitution of a new-agey score and abundant use of slo-mo for genuine spirituality. There’s the character of Seth falling right into that current screen fad of utterly nonthreatening men (Jack Dawson being the king of that world). There’s the near-constant rain (how often does it actually rain in Los Angeles?), purely for effect — ah, Seth is sad, and we know this because it’s raining. There’s the stupid continuity errors, like Maggie’s clothes changing midscene, and the convenient plot holes, like her boyfriend disappearing without explanation just when she was about to marry him. There’s the ludicrous dialogue: “People don’t believe in us anymore,” an angel complains. Say what? All you need to do is read the tabloids, the best-seller lists, and every third GeoCities site for abundant refutation of that idiotic statement.

The best love stories have an element of danger about them — not physical, but emotional, psychical. You trade a part your soul for someone else’s when you fall in love, and it is inexcusable for a story about a character whose business is souls not to even touch on this. Glossy but with no heart, City of Angels is a smooth, unchallenging bit of fluff, about as romantic as a Hallmark card.

“Are you in despair?” Seth asks Maggie at one point. I dunno about her, but I sure am.

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viewed at home on a small screen

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