City of Angels
Why do so many people seem to want so badly to believe in guardian angels? To me, there’s something vaguely creepy and stalker-ish about the whole concept: invisible beings floating around, watching you and maybe giving you a kindly nudge every so often. Ick. Guardian angels sound like a plot devised by an Orwellian government so that we’ll gradually get used to, and even embrace, the idea of being spied on. (Now that might be an interesting movie premise. Call Oliver Stone.)
The one angel movie that gets around my defenses is, of course, Wings of Desire — Wim Wenders’ acclaimed 1988 fantasy in which Bruno Ganz gives up his halo, becomes human, and wins the heart of beautiful acrobat Solveig Dommartin. A decade later, Wenders’ vision comes to us Hollywoodized — not to mention bastardized — in the new remake City of Angels, in which Nicolas Cage gives up his wings to be with surgeon Meg Ryan. There could hardly be a better illustration of Hollywood’s uncanny ability to suck all the brains out of a good idea.
City of Angels begins as Wings of Desire does, with passing glances at random citizens (in Los Angeles instead of Berlin) whose thoughts we overhear. Wenders used the device to make us feel like isolated angels, doomed to eavesdrop on people but never communicate. The filmmakers here, director Brad Silberling (Casper) and scripter Dana Stevens, don’t sustain the angel’s-eye device. Whereas Wenders established black-and-white photography as the way angels see the world, this film is in lush color. In the remake, when an angel becomes human and marvels at the sight of his own blood — “Red! Red! Color!” — it makes no sense, since we’ve spent the movie seeing through his eyes and admiring John Seale’s lovely color photography.
Wenders’ film was also about duality and splits of all kinds; its forbidding Berlin Wall (still standing when the film was shot) and characters with double lives (including Peter Falk playing himself playing a role in a movie) gave us a brooding sense of fractured existence. People go through life looking for wholeness, taking their flawed, painful humanity for granted. There’s also, of course, the eternal divide between the spirit and the flesh. City of Angels pays some feeble lip service to this last idea. Nicolas Cage, the angel protagonist, can’t feel or taste or smell anything. He yearns to be human so he can be with Dr. Meg, who is specifically looking for a guy who can feel, taste, and smell things, apparently.
Somehow Meg is able to see Nicolas in her operating room, staring at her over the soon-to-be-dead body of a guy whose heart she’s fondling (this must be what Hollywood calls a “meet cute”). Soon she’s telling him how a pear tastes and he’s getting advice from a red-faced Dennis Franz as a former angel turned human. The spiritual pieties come fast and hard, and we get a bare-assed Dennis Franz running into the surf and a scene where Meg stabs Nicolas with a knife to see if he bleeds. If a woman stabbed me to see if I bleed, I’d want to be anywhere that she’s not. But no, Nic trades in his wings for his blade-happy sweetie.
As always, Nicolas Cage keeps his end of the bargain; he commits heart-and-soul to a role no matter how stupid the movie is, and he makes you feel the emotional highs and lows of his newly human hero. In his early scenes, when he’s following Meg everywhere, he reminds you less of a creepy stalker than of a lost puppy looking for a warm lap to snuggle in. But after he turns human, City of Angels loses whatever humanity it had, regressing into pointless tragedy and manipulative tearjerking. I mean, even Wim Wenders didn’t feel compelled to whack Solveig Dommartin with a lumber truck, for Christ’s sake. We’ve reached a weird point in cinema history, where “uplifting” Hollywood romances are more depressing than solemn German art films.