City of Angels: Starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan

Loosely based on Wim Winders’ enchanting tale Wings of Desire, Brad Silberling’s City of Angels is a superlatively crafted romantic drama that solidly stands on its own merits.

Like the German film, new pic offers a haunting yet lyrical meditation on such universal issues as spirit versus matter, human courage, and the true meaning of love and desire. The endlessly resourceful Nicolas Cage, as a celestial angel, and a terrifically engaging Meg Ryan, as a pragmatic, surgeon enjoy such a blissful chemistry that they elevate the drama to a poetic level seldom reached in a mainstream movie. Major stars–and an exceedingly handsome production–should help position the film as a major spring release, but Warners still faces a challenge in marketing a stylish movie with undeniable philosophical overtones that deviates substantially from Hollywood’s more conventional romantic fare.

A rarity, City of Angels is a big-budget, star-studded studio movie that approximates European art films not only in its thematic concerns but also in tone, style and design. Indeed, strains between making an original, uncompromised film and a more formulaic, crowd-pleasing romantic meller are evident throughout the narrative. This is particularly so in the last reel, when, for the sake of commercial considerations, the filmmakers carry the romantic elements to an excessively sappy level that doesn’t prevail in the first reels. Nonetheless, for the most part, City of Angels avoids the pitfalls of Hollywood schmaltzy mellers like Ghost or Sleepless in Seattle, in which the concept of what’s romantic is debased in a studied, calculated manner.

Following a splendid overhead shot of L.A. and its icons–the Hollywood sign, the freeways, traffic jams–pic introduces its sympathetic protagonists: Seth (Cage), a restless angel on duty in the city, and Cassiel (Andre Braugher), his celestial comrade who’s more at ease with himself. Gliding through town on the lookout for human suffering, the two discuss the differences between angels and human beings.

Action then switches to a hospital operating room, where Maggie (Ryan), an accomplished heart surgeon, loses her patient. Deeply shaken by the experience, she undergoes a crisis of confidence in her effort to grasp the factual reasons for her failure. Unbeknownst to Maggie, Seth is in the room–watching her misery, he falls hard for her. Gradually, despite the risks involved, Seth decides to become visible to Maggie, changing in the process from an imperceptible spirit to a mysterious stranger with no identifiable past. Perplexed by Seth’s unusual compassion and courtship, Beth becomes intrigued.

As is often the norm in such films, Maggie is engaged to be married to Jordan (Colm Feore), a yuppie doctor, though, clearly, she’s unsure he’s the right man. Confused and bewildered by her vulnerability to Seth, the always rational and empirical Maggie begins to question the sanity of loving a seemingly “perfect” man, who challenges her basic value system.

Drawing intriguing parallels between the two characters, scripter Stevens arranges for Seth to experience his own frustrations, based on the fact that he’s just a “partial occupant” of the human world. Seth longs for the real, sensory world he had previously observed from a distance but was unable to experience. He wants to feel the taste of a pear, the sight of tears, the pain of a wound. At the end, Seth gives up his status as an angel to become a full-fledged human, willingly trading his immortality for the more chaotic yet exciting mundane existence.

Narrative gets richer and more complex through the inclusion of secondary characters, such as Messinger (Dennis Franz), Maggie’s bright patient who knows Seth’s secret, and Anne (Robin Bartlett), a colleague at the hospital who inadvertently facilitates Maggie’s transformation.

Departing from the plot of Wings of Desire, in which the sad angels were silent partners in witnessing human conduct and where the romantic affair occurred at the end, here, the angels are more active and the two romantic partners meet in the very first reel. City of Angels actually brings to mind several themes that were developed by Kieslowski in The Double Life of Veronique and the color trilogy (Blue, White, Red), specifically the mysterious workings of fate and the feeling shared by many individuals that they are not alone, that their behavior is observed by invisible forces.
To Stevens’ credit, the contrasts between scientific rationality and spirituality and between dictates of the heart and those of the head (a perennial American theme), don’t come across as overly schematic. Nonetheless, how viewers will take the notion of an angel, exercising his free will of becoming mortal for the sake of love, will largely depend on their predispositions– and good faith.

In his sophomore effort, helmer Silberling (Casper), makes a huge leap forward, showing his passion for the material with a subtle, completely controlled direction. A number of staged sequences (particularly in the first hour) beautifully highlight pic’s central motifs, celebrating leaps of the imagination as well as the victory of faith when fueled by intense love

Tech credits are top-drawer across the board. John Seale’s dynamic visual imagery illustrates the celestial narrative without relying on special effects or on the obvious use of mirrors and smoke. With the remarkable assistance of production designer Lilly Kilvert, editor Lynzee Klingman and composer Gabriel Yared, pic conveys a sense of altered reality through graceful slow-motions and exciting long takes of quintessential L.A. vistas (Downtown’s Central Market, Mulholland Drive, Malibu Beach, LAX’s Control Tower) all shot from the angels’ P.O.V.
But ultimately, what gives the movie its special grace is the exquisite, nuanced acting of Cage, as the rebel, Pinnochio-like angel who wants to be a real boy. Drawing on expressive movements and slightly stylized gestures, he gives one of his most low-key and lyrical performances. Casting aside her customary “cute” look, Ryan also excels as a down-to-earth surgeon, whose entire set of beliefs is shaken by her encounter with Seth. Impressive supporting work also comes from TV’s two tough cops, Messinger (NYPD Blues), as a free spirit who fully embraces life’s pleasures, and Braugher (Homicide), as the more serenely content angel.

Whether intended or not, City of Angels plays like a valentine to L.A., romanticizing the city in a manner not seen since Steve Martin’s 1991 starrer, L.A. Story.