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Loving 'Angels'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 1998


City of Angels Surgeon Meg Ryan falls for a heavenly being in "City of Angels." (Warner Bros.)

Brad Silberling
Meg Ryan;
Nicolas Cage;
Andre Braugher;
Dennis Franz
Running Time:
1 hour, 56 minutes
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Hollywood has conjured cherubic angels ("It's a Wonderful Life"), hunky angels ("Michael"), button-down angels ("Here Comes Mr. Jordan") and debonair angels ("The Bishop's Wife"). But it was German filmmaker Wim Wenders who came up with clinically depressed angels in "Wings of Desire."

Among the many pleasures of Wenders's Berlin-based art film, the sober seraphs are back for more people-monitoring in an appealing mainstream remake, "City of Angels." In the new version, as well as the old, they spend their days and nights eavesdropping on mortal thoughts and conversations.

While permitted to comfort the suffering with a whisper or a caress, they follow the same prime directive as the crew of the USS Enterprise: They are forbidden to interfere with the fates of the natives. So they watch, wonder and soak up the Weltschmerz.

Of course, now that the story takes place in Los Angeles, the seraphs are less given to rueful contemplation of metaphysical issues than to just feeling the vibes. That's not to say that the remake is altogether without the original's lofty themes or lyric tone. Its approach is just like "Ghost."

Brad Silberling, the director of "Casper," has reached a higher plane in this film, despite a wrongheaded turn in the sticky final act. Though far from a seamless work, the film is gorgeously crafted, and Silberling obviously has a passion for angels. But then these days, who doesn't? It's no wonder these heavenly creatures are so down, as the demand on them has never been greater.

Don't expect to hear the whistle of wind through alabaster feathers. These angels don't come equipped with wings, harps or halos. Clad in long black overcoats and dark trousers, they look more like fashion designers than "messengers of God."

Basic black is a fabulous look for Nicolas Cage, whose bird's-nest hair has been tamed to match the serenity he brings to the role of Seth, a seraph who forsakes his celestial roost for the woman he loves: Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), a gifted heart surgeon shaken over the loss of a patient.

After escorting the dearly departed's soul into the afterlife, Seth returns to help Maggie regain her confidence. In the process, he falls deeply in love with the passionate young doctor and, despite the risk, makes himself visible to her. Though engaged to a fellow surgeon, Maggie finds herself irresistibly drawn to the mysterious, compassionate man in black.

Though there's little doubt how this will sort itself out, writer Dana Stevens's scenario is not as formulaic as it might seem.

"Wings of Desire" may be the more esoteric of the two pictures, but it's the one with the Hollywood ending. "City of Angels" weighs the cost of true love, then asks, all too blatantly, if it's worth the bother. Cage and Ryan, with their expressive performances and radiant rapport, certainly make it seem so.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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