Americans have a habit of prettifying movies which are
taken from classics and from European-made films. Not all,
mind you, but think of what Hollywood Pictures did to
Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"--gave it a happy ending and
then some. And remember the remake of the Dutch movie
"The Vanishing," in which the studios erased an ending (a
man and wife are buried alive, the villain getting away) and
substituted one that has the hero saving the woman just
before she suffocates. "City of Angels," which insists that it is
not a remake of Wim Wenders' wonderful "Wings of Desire,"
changes the German picture somewhat, keeping the lines of
the original story but failing to capture its ambiance. And
atmosphere is what you most want in a movie which is at
heart a meditation on love, death, and the meaning of being
The film which inspired this one, "Wings of Desire," deals
with an angel (Bruno Ganz) who is transformed into a human
being to satisfy his curiosity and to chase a female acrobat.
Where the European art work is as rambling as its angel is
rumpled, "City of Angels" exchanges a meandering narrative
for a more tightly structured line. Out with the weaving of
black-and-white with color, out with the refusal of the German
to find a simple, conventional conclusion to his search for
human love. In with easy sentiment, kitsch, and two
performers--well, maybe one--who has endeared herself to
the American public by being the all-American woman she is.
The same philosophy that informed "Wings of Desire"
instructs us in the American version. As Win Wenders wrote
after directing "Wings," "To live for an eternity and to be
present all the time. To live with the essence of things but
not to be able to raise a cup of coffee and drink it, or really
touch somebody...that would be terrible." In "City of Angels"
which takes place, of course, in L.A., Nicolas Cage plays the
part of an angel in a pickle. Sure he has stuff going for him.
He will live forever. He cannot get sick; if he cuts himself he
loses no blood; he can fly, can sit on steel girders high above
the city, and he can look at women undressing from two
inches away without their noticing him. Ah, so, you like the
last option? Unfortunately voyeurism does him no good. He
feels...nothing. He cannot taste a rich blend of cappuccino,
make love to anyone, smell the roses. It's no wonder that
when he runs into an angelic human being, Maggie Rice
(Meg Ryan), he wants to experience all the joys and sorrows
of the human condition.
Maggie is a cardiologist who feels guilty each time she
loses a patient, a remorse that makes her wonder whether
she should even continue in a profession in which she holds
people's hearts in her hand and sometimes let them down
and must face the sufferings of their families. Each time the
hospital loses a patient, the sufferer's soul is conveniently
escorted away by an angel, as Seth (Nicolas Cage's
character), obliges a very young girl who dies of a strange
fever. Though Seth is able to transform himself to a corporeal
shape which can be seen by others, he still cannot feel.
Transmuting into a physical presence, he flirts with Maggie
who falls almost instantly in love with him, despite his scruffy
appearance and her near-engagement to a handsome fellow
surgeon. Seth is advised by a fellow angel that he can, by
the use of free will, renounce his status and become a mortal
person, subject to pleasure, pain and death. Wildly in love
with Maggie, he makes the ultimate choice, literally falling
head over heels for her.
The film has comic scenes particularly those involving
Nathaniel Messenger (Dennis Franz), who, we later learn, had
also been an angel and made the choice of spending some
years raising a real family. As we watch the band of cherubs
standing like pod people from Dark City in black garb on the
beaches of L.A. or gathering cheerlessly around the hospital
lobby, we have little doubt that Seth has made the correct
choice. No matter that a host of unpleasant circumstances
befall him from the moment he becomes a person: love
Unfortunately, "City of Angels" cannot match its
predecessor for the reasons stated above, nor does it break
away from the most typical features of its type such as "The
Preacher's Wife." Cage, with droopy face and dejected
demeanor, is meant to project either a sticky sympathy for the
newly dead he is to escort to heaven or an existential
sadness for his own plight. In either case he is miscast in a
film which, despite the spiritual nature of its theme, is a by-
the-numbers bit of commerce.
Copyright © 1998 Harvey Karten