Michael

John Travolta's charismatic screen presence is the only element that propels Michael, Nora Ephron's flawed romantic fable, over its rough narrative spots and scattered direction. In what must be a casting coincidence, though logical extension of his latest role in Phenomenon, Travolta plays a heaven-sent angel, who brings joy, love and redemption to a team of cynical and frustrated tabloid journalists. Though Travolta boasts an impeccable box-office track record, his star power is not likely to repeat Phenomenon's miracle, but it will certainly guarantee solid standing during the crowded holiday season and even brighter future as a hot video title.

The shadow of master filmmakers Frank Capra and Howard Hawks (among others) looms large over Michael, not only in the small-town setting and main characters of washed-out journalists, but also in the tone of a would-be screwball comedy. Unfortunately, Ephron lacks the vision and skill to pull it off. With only four films to her credit, Ephron is already repeating herself, borrowing themes from her successful romantic comedy, Sleepless in Seattle, as well as her disastrous Mixed Nuts.

Michael might just as well have been titled Mixed Nuts, both in its Christmas background and focus on a group of lonesome professionals desperate for love, valor and compassion. New pic also suffers from the same vignettish structure and lopsided tempo that marred Ephron's l994 comedy. On the plus side, Michael has the pleasing romantic notes of Sleepless in Seattle, in the relationship between a terrific William Hurt and not-so-terrific Andie MacDowell, who's cast in a role that Barbara Stanwyck or Claudette Colbert would have played to perfection in the golden age.

Tale begins in the editorial offices of the “National Mirror,” a sleazy tabloid run by feisty publisher, Vartan Malt (Bob Hoskins). When rumor of an angel's existence reaches the magazine, bitter, down-on-his-luck journalist Frank Quinlan (Hurt) senses a front-page scoop, but his boss won't let him track the alleged angel by himself. Instead, he sends along Huey Driscoll (Robert Pastorelli), another distressed reporter, and Dorothy Winters (MacDowell), a mysterious woman who claims to be an “angel expert.”

If the trio fails to deliver a “hot” story about Michael, boss Vartan threatens to fire Huey and take away from him his dog, Sparky, the magazine's true star–and cash cow. Week after week, millions of readers anxiously await the mutt's glorious photo, posing with yet another set of politicians and international celebs.

Action then switches to a Capraesque setting, small-town Iowa, and the shabby house of Pansy Milbank (Jean Stapleton), an elderly woman living with Michael, an angel who reportedly flattened the local bank to free her from desperate financial straits. Pansy claims that Michael has appeared in Iowa out of nowhere. Other than wings, the angel's quite ordinary, sporting razor stubble, long, unkempt hair–and a big belly.

Once the rag-tag team and Michael hit the road to Chicago, yarn assumes the shape of an awkward road comedy, desperate for the Jonathan Demme touch in his heartland fables. Spars–and occasionally sparks–abound along the way. In fact, Quinlan and Dorothy spend so much time squabbling that it becomes immediately clear it's only a matter of time before they end up in each other's arms.

It takes Michael's heavenly philosophy and enchanting powers to bring Sparky back to life (when hit by a truck) and to transform a bunch of disenchanted cynics into hopeful lovers and “believers.” Michael has a particularly strong influence on women: Whenever they stop for a rest, he acts like a playboy, which makes all the waitresses stare at him with yearning eyes. In a charming scene, the quartet goes to a pub and Michael begins to dance–by now a staple in Travolta's movies (from Saturday Night Fever to Urban Cowboy and Pulp Fiction). One by one, the women in the bar desert their beaus and circle around him like bees. Benefitting from Travolta's charming poise and abundant sex appeal, this and a few other sequences hold special allure for female viewers.

Though no less than four scripters are credited, Michael is at once underwritten and overwritten. Rowdy, slapdash and unevenly directed, the movie is basically a collection of episodes tied together on a flimsy string. The narrative is so thin that the characters are revealed entirely by the actors who play them.

In the movie's lethargically paced scenes, Ephron gives the impression that she had completed her job at the casting level, leaving the thesps to their own devices. This strategy works for the ever-resourceful Travolta and for a pro like Hurt (who does a deft job of his specialty, playing the surly, crabby heroe). But it backfires with MacDowell, who lacks the lightness and technique to pull off a sharp, sassy, often-married and often-divorced femme.

Michael contains one too many earnest passages, and its virtuous ending represents a shameless pandering to the box office. There's a big death scene, a la Phenomenon, and the central couple is reunited in a similarly sticky and calculated way as in Sleepless in Seattle. Before turning to filmmaking, Ephron was a sharp essayist and scripter, but as helmer, her movies are increasingly becoming insipid and savorless.

Pic lacks visual distinction and its production values are all average, including the editing of Geraldine Peroni, who has done excellent work for Robert Altman, but here can't conceal the material's rugged transitions in locale and mood.

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