Every major religion in the world makes some reference to winged messengers of God. According to the Bible, they are immortal beings, numbering in the millions, created by God before the beginning of time, to act as His messengers or carry out His will. While angels have been typically depicted in art and literature as winged females, the majority of the biblical references have portrayed angels as wingless men, normally invisible to humans. However, when they do appear, in order to deliver a message, they generally appear in human form. In "City of Angels", the latest film from director Brad Silberling ("Casper"), the scriptural accounts of angels are woven into a romantic drama, as hundreds of timeless male angels keep watch over Los Angeles.
Are you God?
No, my name is Seth.
Seth (Nicolas Cage of "Face/Off" and "Leaving Las Vegas") is such an angel, one of the many silent and solitary figures that hover over the city, providing quiet inspiration and focus to its human inhabitants, and easing the transition between life and the afterlife for the dying. Unlike his partner Cassiel (Andre Braugher of "Homicide: Life on the Street", perhaps the best actor working on television today), Seth is not satisfied with merely being a voyeur of human activity, or reading about the wonders of human experience through the words of Hemingway-- he wishes to embrace it. While on his divine wandering, he happens to come across a hospital operating room, where Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan of "Addicted to Love" and "Courage Under Fire"), a heart surgeon, has just failed to revive her patient. Seth, watching the anguish and pain of failure on Maggie's face, is instantly enamored with her, and wants to comfort her.
She won't understand.
She will… one day.
Longing to become closer to Maggie, Seth makes himself visible to her. Unfortunately, Maggie is engaged to another doctor, Jordan (Colm Feore), and soon she finds herself torn between the comfortable yet emotionally-dishonest relationship with Jordan, and her inexplicable attraction to Seth, a calm face of tranquility without a past. But because he is an angel, Seth is unable to truly love her, and he faces a difficult choice-- to spend eternity in his present form and never know the warmth of Maggie's touch, or to 'fall', giving up his divine existence, to fully embrace the human condition and be with Maggie.
What good will wings be if you couldn't feel the wind on your face?
"City of Angels" is a lot like "Great Expectations" with respect to the uneven mix of the visceral and narrative elements. On the one hand, it is a beautifully-directed film that places the oft-photographed Los Angeles landmarks into a mystical context, and many of the scenes are exquisitely-realized through the warm cinematography of John Seale (who also lensed "The English Patient"). The angels, dressed in black flowing robes, are universal in their presence, standing on the beach in Santa Monica to bask in the first rays of the new day, watching over the city from their rooftop perchings, or absorbing the richness of human thought in the city's libraries. Never has the Los Angeles cityscape looked so intoxicatingly quixotic. With its metaphysical elements, "City of Angels" seems to be one of those European arthouse flights of philosophical fancy, such as Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors: Red". Indeed, "City of Angels" is loosely-based on the 1987 Wim Wenders film "Wings of Desire", which had the angelic overseers of post-war Berlin discuss the joy and pain of the human condition as they shuffled peacefully through the city.
Hi Seth, where are you from?
Up north… Canada.
However, "City of Angels" fails to create any emotional resonance within its narrative, and as a result, it does not rise above the level of your typical Hollywood melodramatic weeper. First of all, whereas Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors: Red" dealt with many of the same themes, such as destiny, the existence of soulmates, and the dichotomy of human existence, Kieslowski was more subtle in articulating his thesis, a 'passive-aggressive' approach that allowed the audience to arrive at the conclusions on their own. In "City of Angels", the narrative has been 'Americanized' to the point where the characters actually hand you everything on a plate by telling you-- leaving no room for interpretation. A noticeable side effect of this blatant thematic exposition is the very prosaic dialogue, almost clunky, to the point of eliciting a few chuckles from the more cynical members of the audience.
Furthermore, the structure of the film follows the prototypical romantic-comedy narrative form, right down to becoming predictable in the third act-- which may have been fine if this film was meant to be a light diversion. However, this ambitious film aims to be much more, and this rigid adherence to the formula diminishes its intentions, bringing an almost cheesy sentimentality to the proceedings.
Performance-wise, Cage is perfectly cast as Seth, his expressive face and body language bringing across the cherubic and compassionate aspects of his character with a remarkably low-key performance. Ryan brings a good mix of vulnerability and strength to her character, who makes the transition of having her actions being ruled by her head, to having them ruled by the heart. Dennis Franz ("NYPD Blue") is engaging as a patient of Maggie that helps Seth learn to embrace the joy of life, and Braugher is well-cast as Seth's serene celestial colleague.
I really wanted to have passion for this film, because it had all the right elements going for it: a celebration of the human condition, engaging visceral elements, and an exploration of destiny and fate. However, this hope soon faded in light of the flat narrative and mundane dialogue-- it was nice to look at, but it didn't say anything important. As an overemotional weepfest, it probably fills the bill-- just don't look for anything meaningful beyond that.