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'City of Angels': Clipped 'Wings'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 1998

  Movie Critic

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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When will Hollywood learn to leave well enough alone?

"City of Angels," the swan song from the husband and wife producing team Charles Roven and the late Dawn Steel, is an authorized – but very loose – adaptation of the brilliant 1988 film fantasia "Wings of Desire" by the German Wim Wenders (winner of the best director prize at that year's Cannes Film Festival). Needless to say, in the age of inferior remakes, this would-be homage – a sort of Wim Wenders Lite – is a mawkish debasement of its source material.

The two films are alike in one way: They both tell the story of an angel who falls in love with a human being. But that's where the similarities stop. Sentimental where "Wings" was serious, superficial where "Wings" was cosmic, overly literal where "Wings" was suggestive and poetic, "City of Angels" is not only derivative but, what's worse, dishonest.

Seth (Nicolas Cage) is an angel. We know this because, like all angels, he is invisible, moves "with the speed of thought" and wears a long, dark raincoat (a hip but gratuitous touch stolen from the earlier film). Along with his fellow celestial being Cassiel (the great Andre Braugher), his mission is to comfort those in pain and to guide the dying toward the light.

Thus, the nature of his job brings him into contact with cute-as-a-bunny thoracic surgeon Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan), a hot shot medico with sorry people skills and a stalled love life who listens to rock music in the O.R. (a touch stolen from the 1991 movie "The Doctor"). It's an odd bit of casting that seems calculated more for Ryan's box office appeal than for her believability: Her squeaky, little-girl voice undermines what little credibility she can muster. And what kind of ditsy surgeon rides a bike through Los Angeles traffic without wearing a helmet, anyway? (Okay, okay, lots of doctors smoke, too.)

Meanwhile, Seth falls in love with Maggie and, in short order, she with him (he can will himself visible, you see, if he tries hard enough). What he's drawn to in her is hard to understand. Dr. Rice is attractive, yes, but a bit of a jerk. It's not difficult to believe what she sees in the soulful Seth, though. ("Those eyes," she swoons.) Cage is his normally smoldering, intense and interesting self, but all his efforts to enrich this vehicle are for naught.

Longing to touch the touchable and sniff the scents of real life, Seth prepares to take the plunge (quite literally) and become human, following instructions and encouragement from Nathaniel Messinger (Dennis Franz), a fallen angel he encounters in the hospital. (Messinger = messenger, get it?)

From this point on, "City of Angels" becomes the most conventional of conventional love stories, tarted up with a bit of greeting-card philosophy about the joys of being alive. The only tension comes from wondering whether Seth and Maggie will live happily ever after or not, in an ending that Warner Bros. specifically requests not be revealed. But if you've seen any of the hackneyed romantic movies (certainly not "Wings of Desire"), from which this film draws its true inspiration, the outcome is not hard to guess.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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