The big picture: The angel who fell to earth


NOW THAT PLANS for Tim Burton's stab at a Superman film have been indefinitely postponed, it looks like Nicolas Cage will be denied the chance to wear his underpants outside his trousers (though if he chooses to exercise this right in the privacy of his own home, that's no concern of mine). For the time being, his role in City of Angels will provide some consolation. Although the picture cites Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire as its progenitor, the real inspiration for the film's dramatic dilemma lies in a far less prestigious source. When Seth, the angel played by Cage, puzzles over whether or not to exchange his divinity for domestic bliss with a mortal woman, he's following in the footsteps of the Man of Steel, who turned in all that saving-the-world poppycock to go shopping for household nick-nacks with Lois Lane in Superman II.

Seth's experiences aren't a whole lot different from Superman's; he too is introduced to mortality with a sound thrashing, and gazes in astonishment at the blood which pearls on a fresh wound. It's fitting that the picture should echo such low-brow entertainment, because it always struck you that Wings of Desire would have been more tolerable as a vulgar Hollywood tearjerker than as a sombre European art movie. What innocent pleasures it did offer were contained in Wenders' use of a divided Germany as the backdrop to a tug-of-love between heaven and earth. Los Angeles, where City of Angels is set, doesn't carry the imposing history of Berlin, though the location is appropriate in other ways. For instance, if you're going to swap perfection for fallibility, you may as well do it in LA. And though the city might not be cleaved in two by a wall, it has its own divisions, its own haves and have nots, as anyone who has tried to land a table at Spago will readily attest.

The film doesn't make a very convincing case for LA as a spiritual playground, but it has a go. The angels who frequent the city mope around in 7-Elevens, stride across rooftop helipads or perch on scaffolding, kicking their heels. In one splendidly indulgent shot, there's even a few of them milling about on the "Hollywood" sign. At dusk, they all congregate on the beach in silent prayer, an image which is supposed to be lyrical but prompted thoughts of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All told, there doesn't seem much of a case to be made for angelic status. The pluses are negligible. You get a regulation black overcoat. You're not subject to fines for overdue library books. And you can travel at the speed of thought, which would be handy unless you were Charlie Sheen, in which case it would take an eternity to get downtown and back.

As an angel, you can also dip into people's minds. The device of internal eavesdropping has to some extent been devalued by over-familiarity in the 11 years between Wings of Desire and City of Angels, in which time it has been appropriated by pop videos, Gillian Wearing's photographic collection Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say, and an ad for a nutty snack-bar. And besides, the extras in the movie are all so maddeningly virtuous that they take the fun out of mind-reading. One young fellow is caught thinking "When a woman decides to sleep with a man, there is no wall she won't scale". A date with him would be a real whizz. Another chap, held at gunpoint, thinks "I'll never get to see my grand-children". Nobody here curses; no one grapples with unchecked passions. It's as though LA is trying to reinvent itself in the image of Walton-on-the-Naze. You'd never guess that this city had been home to the Simpsons: Don and OJ, that is.

In the role of Maggie, the mortal who tempts Seth down from the clouds, Meg Ryan fits perfectly into this airbrushed LA. Maggie is a surgeon who plays Jimi Hendrix tapes while she operates, and devotes her lunchbreak not to a quick fag on the stairwell but to a tour of incubators. After failing to resuscitate a patient, Maggie starts entertaining philosophical questions, though only in the same casual manner that she weighs up whether to use jalapeno or rosemary olive oil. Looking into Seth's eyes with an expression that is either love or bad wind, she whines "I don't understand the god who could let us meet when there's no way we could be together." Never mind Auschwitz or Hiroshima: Maggie is mad at God for having decreed that she must wander the aisles of Ikea alone.

Ryan's kookiness has been toned down for the part; now her line readings work on you like anaesthetic instead of shock treatment. Her curls are fixed in place, and her expression of bemused wonderment seems lacquered too. Nicolas Cage might seem a peculiar choice to play a walking embodiment of goodness, but if the genre can countenance George Burns as the Creator in the Oh God! films, then there's room for an actor who has been cast as a vampire, an alcoholic and even Cher's boyfriend. So it's doubly disappointing that, for the first time in his career, Cage seems caged. There's a chilly tinge to his early appearances, as you realise that his arrival signifies imminent death, the way Jack Palance always used to, but Cage hasn't been directed to do anything more than swing his morose Bassett Hound features from side to side. Only once does he burrow deeper, with a yearning gaze which perfectly captures the frustration of a man who can watch a woman bathing, and even tune into her fantasies about him, and yet not even feel her skin under his fingertips.

The director Brad Silberling has made one previous picture, Casper, which was also about people reconciling themselves to mortality. But that was a children's film, and Silberling hasn't noticeably adjusted his approach for City of Angels. He still sees death as a state where you are simply on one side of a glass partition as opposed to the other. This will undoubtedly be a balm to less searching viewers, but Silberling's intentions are rootless. When A Matter of Life and Death was released in 1946, the film's vision of heaven as like earth, only in monochrome, comforted viewers whose loved ones had been claimed by war. With its studies of crowded freeways where each lonely driver is cocooned in a separate world, City of Angels seems at first to be tapping into the vague anguish caused by pre-millennial jitters. But in its final half-hour, the movie succumbs instead to the dizzy rush of melodrama, inviting a new generation to experience the kitsch thrill that their parents and grand-parents got from the Shangri-La's singing "Leader of the Pack".

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