City of Angels

City of Angels

Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: City of Angels toys with your emotions. It ramps up the melodrama, the sappy music, right on cue in order to bring you to the edge of tears. It’s very manipulative in that respect. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, although the fact that it’s so un-subtle at its game is kind of a disappointing.

The movie is a re-make or up-date or heir to the throne of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, which I have not seen and am therefore unable to whine about how terrible this is in comparison. It’s about an angel named Seth who falls in love with a heart surgeon named Maggie, and decides that he loves her so much that he is willing to forgo his eternal life and twice daily sun-music simply for the opportunity to touch her hair. Awwwww. Isn’t that sweet? Of course it is.
Not to interrupt the flow of this review, but Maggie is thinking to herself in her bathtub at one point in the movie and says, “Seth? What kind of name is that?” I realize that the world was radically different in 1998, the year that this film was released, but certainly SETH was not that unusual a name. I don’t know, that just kind of bugged me.

A lot of the beginning of the movie involves Seth (Cage) following Maggie around in silent reverence. She cannot see him unless he allows her to, but he can see her. He watches her perform a surgery and lose a patient. He watches her cry on the stairwell. He reads her thoughts, sees the guilt that she feels for letting a man die.
It’s plodding and slow. The scenes where angelic goings-on take to the forefront are the most engaging, although they often rely on cheap sight gags, such as Cage and a fellow angel played by Andre Braugher sitting on a freeway sign. Not that all of them are played this way, mind you: there is a tense scene in the first quarter of the movie where Cage and Braugher are watching a robbery take place at a convenience store. That scene is played extremely well.

But for the most part, the first half of the movie doesn’t stack up to the second. And the second does have its flaws, but still remains more gripping. It is in the second half of the movie that Seth decides to take the plunge, so to speak, and become a human. His newfound awareness and ability to utilize his senses provide Nicolas Cage with a chance to really stretch his acting muscles after existing before as a stoic and mostly unemotional figure. Sometimes it gets a little bit silly, as when he steps into a shower and the water is scorching hot. Yet there’s so much that does work, which makes it easy to overlook the few moments where the movie strains. One particularly moving scene that takes place near a fireplace could have toppled over the edge into campiness, but it works.
In fact, most of City of Angels straddles the line between deeply resonant and utterly ridiculous, and generally makes it out alive. The romance is pretty obviously constructed, but it’s not difficult to get caught up in it regardless.
Oh, there’s the standard romance plot device wherein the couple has a misunderstanding and break apart for a brief amount of time, documented mainly in a music-filled montage of loneliness. Nobody is here to claim that the movie is perfect, because it is quite obviously not. There’s too much that is slow, and strange, and sappy, and nearly pointless (coughcoughDennisFranzcoughcough). But damned if it didn’t grab ahold of me, anyway. I saw the problems, I saw the forced melodrama, and I still got caught up in it.

City of Angels is not a masterpiece. The first half of the movie is disappointingly dull, but the second half was strong enough to win me over. It was easy to imagine the way that Seth felt running his hand along Maggie’s skin and actually feeling her for the first time. And that’s what’s great about the movie in a nutshell: although it’s more mainstream than the movie that it was inspired by, it still manages to mine most of its emotions through the way one person touches another, or the mere act of eating a pear.
No, it’s not perfect… but it is still special.

This review was written 12/05/2008.

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