RetroReviews #45: City of Angels (1998)

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JULY 2, 2013 SCREENING: CITY OF ANGELS (1998)

If some overly weepy sentimental romance movie starring Meg Ryan can move a guy like me, it’s pretty darn good. I am definitely not “into” Meg Ryan romance movies, and the very thought that I will have to sit through some chick flick about one of her characters falling in love makes me ill.City of Angels was made at the height of Meg Ryan’s chick film romance movie career (thankfully, those days seem to be over now) and its actually one of the best, in spite of the many flaws of the movie.

In many ways, this film is the exact opposite of the film that inspired it: Wings of Desire. It’s so far removed from the original German film, I don’t think its even fair to call this movie is a remake. Rather, it takes the same basic premise – a guardian angel watching over a city falls in love with a mortal city – and turns it into a mainstream Hollywood movie. In most cases, that would ruin the integrity of the original film by dumbing it down into a generic formula film. In the case of City of Angels, however, its really the only thing that redeems the movie.

Nicholas Cage plays the angel Seth, and he’s thoroughly miscast in the role, in my opinion. I’m not a fan of Nick Cage (especially his post-1995 roles), but I can’t really blame him here. He is faced with the almost impossible task of portraying a totally pure and loving immortal being that watches over mankind. Such an acting role would be extremely difficult to cast, and require an actor that is not only physically attractive but universally seen as warm and loving simply by his presence. When Cage plays the part, his angel comes across as more like a creepy stalker who hang around, dressed all in black, and silently stares at people. What worked in the script definitely doesn’t convey the same idea on screen.

In spite of this big problem with one of the film’s two leads, it still works. I really felt for Meg Ryan’s character (who is a heart surgeon and faces death and dying every day), and the situation she finds herself in really makes it understandable why Seth is drawn to her. One particularly strong and emotional moment is when a very sick hospital patient, played by Dennis Franz, turns out to be an angel himself, but one who “fell” to earth and took human form years ago. What sounds cheesy on paper is quite moving in the film, with Franz still aware that guardian angels are among us, and still being able to sense their presence (remarking to Nick Cage “I can’t see you, but I know you’re there”). Franz is quite despondent over the way the world has become, saying people no longer have faith and would never accept the truth.

Of course, this eventually leads Seth the angel to seek mortality, and the scene where he actually “falls to earth” and becomes a mortal being is really well done and shows a complete change in the way the character sees and interacts with the world around him. Its reminiscent in many ways of when Dorothy discovered Oz for the first time, and the film famously switched from black-and-white to color. Seth is able to be with the mortal woman he loves, but there’s a twist at the end of the film that provided a real tearjerker for the audience.

City of Angels is certainly not my kind of movie, and yet it found a way to make me a fan of it. I’m not even sure how this movie sold me on its world given all the flaws that can be found in the film itself, but the overall results simply worked. City of Angels may be a mainstream Hollywood romance film and a conventional fantasy story, but its far from being light-weight, silly, or filled with dumb jokes. It presents a lot of very interesting ideas and scenarios, and the way it presents them makes it well worth the watch.

*** out of ****

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