City of Angels is one of the strangest romantic films to emerge from the 90s. As a date movie, it’s ponderous and wild-eyed to the point of being deliriously goofy. Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, two of the era’s biggest stars, don’t work at all as a supernatural couple. Finally, the film capitalizes on the time period’s craze in angels, but strips all the mythos away from them, thus removing what makes them compelling in the first place. So, nothing about City of Angels has any right to work.
Still, there’s something oddly fascinating about this woozy, moody piece of cinematic Ambien. This may not hang together as a coherent movie, but Angels does make for a compelling little time capsule. It’s even more interesting to hold this Hollywood schmaltz next to Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), the superior German release that loosely inspired it. Long story short: For a mediocre movie, Brad Silberling’s contemplative, overwritten mess still offers an onslaught of stuff to unpack.
The story opens on Seth (Cage), an immortal angel as old as the universe itself. As with all the film’s other angels, Seth is dressed like a bassist in a grunge band: Head-to-toe in black, with a billowing trench coat flowing behind every celestial step. He’s also devoid of conventional human sensations. He cannot feel or smell or taste. And when it comes to emotions, Seth is even more muted. He doesn’t know anger, or joy. Still, he can soothe human suffering, or guide a frightened soul to the afterlife, but that makes him more of a conduit of healing and grace than a beacon: Seth is vaguely empathetic, but also somewhat aloof.
This fantastical existence gets rocked when Seth meets Maggie (Ryan). In the original film, her character was a freewheeling circus performer. Here, Maggie becomes a hotshot surgeon who thinks her shit doesn’t stink. (We ‘Mericans love our cocky heroes, don’t we?) Her teflon demeanor gets punctured when a patient codes and croaks before her very eyes. Suddenly mortal, Maggie comes unglued and even questions her calling as a healer. Seth, who often lingers around hospitals, is instantly smitten. He finds her sobbing in a stairwell, and it’s a quiet intersection of two souls in crisis. Seth is drawn to her beautiful vulnerability. For a moment, Maggie seems to sense his presence. She looks into his eyes, or does she? In an instant, Seth must confront his place as an immortal.
These crises come to a head with the arrival of Mr. Messinger (Dennis Franz), Maggie’s new cardiac patient. It seems Messinger is paying the price for a life of indulgence, but his story is actually a little more complicated than that. From his hospital bed, Messinger speaks to Seth, even though he can’t see him. Turns out, Mr. Messinger was once Nathaniel, a fellow angel. He informs Seth that it’s possible for an angel to fall from the heavens, but the effect is permanent. As Seth sees the joy Messinger feels in being human, combined with the allure of Maggie, his decision quickly becomes clear.
The ensuing romance never feels like anything more than a screenwriting invention. Seth’s initial exchanges with Maggie are stilted and icky, as if he’s been taking dating tips from episodes of Forensic Files. On their initial meeting, Seth offers creepy factoids on Maggie’s life–things that only an angel or a shadowy serial killer would know. Of course, she develops a potent attraction to him, mainly because the script requires it. They make big, googly eyes at each other, and engage in big discussions about life, death, and the taste of pears. And not one minute of this breathy, sweaty love affair rings true. I don’t know if the blame goes to how off-putting Seth is, or how oblivious and naive Maggie is, but I suspect a decent amount of guilt goes in both directions.
On their own, Cage and Ryan are compelling actors. They just don’t click, especially as a couple with cosmic implications. Much of the film that does work comes from the supporting cast. Franz (stepping in for Wings‘ redoubtable Peter Falk) does a fine job as the plain-spoken Messinger, who acts as liaison between the worlds of Seth and Maggie. Andre Braugher is so charismatic, he even brings charm to Cassiel, Seth’s cerebral angel buddy. Franz and Braugher elevate the entire movie with their few scenes.
Another plus can be found in the film’s soundtrack, which is loaded with syrupy hits. The biggest of these is “Iris,” in which Goo Goo Dolls unleash a maddeningly catchy chorus and a torrent of mandolins that arguably eclipsed the movie itself in popularity. Adding to the party are: Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” which was so plaintive and pitiful that it would later adorn commercials for shelter puppies, and “Uninvited, Alanis Morissette’s stadium-sized emo epic that sounds dedicated to somebody bugging her in the middle of dinner. As an added treat, Hendrix aficionados can enjoy the frothy blues of “Red House.” (Although, curiously, not his posthumous ballad “Angel.”) Even if you can’t dig on the movie itself, you might give the soundtrack a stream. More than anything, it transforms Angels into a very effective burst of 90s nostalgia.
That’s really the only way I can recommend City of Angels. It’s a trip to a more innocent decade, when angels dressed like Johnny Cash could hang out in public libraries and read Ernest Hemingway over people’s shoulders. Maybe they could’ve called this Love in the Time of Tamagotchis. As it is, this is a rom-com…without much com. And the rom is totally off the wall. Plus, that ending is a real bummer. In closing, this is my best advice: Check out Wings of Desire. It’s just a much better movie.
114 min. PG-13. Tubi.