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'Michael': Halo, Goodbye

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1996

In "Michael," Nora Ephron's ultimately flightless fantasy, a grungy individual (John Travolta) in Iowa claims to be Heaven's most famous angel. He hardly looks the part. Potbellied and slovenly, he burps frequently, scratches his crotch when he wakes up in the morning, loves a good smoke and can't keep his hands off women.

He's an archangel, he explains to the three skeptical reporters from the National Mirror who have come to check his authenticity. He was built for battle with the Devil, not celestial saintliness. Michael's claim would be easy to laugh off except for one thing: the very real set of wings on his back.

To these Chicago tabloid journalists, Michael is their ticket to the front page. And for writers Frank Quinlan (William Hurt) and Huey Driscoll (Robert Pastorelli), whose boss (Bob Hoskins) is on the verge of firing them, this is especially sweet. As for Dorothy Winters (Andie MacDowell), a new hire who claims to be an "angel expert," there's no saying what she really thinks.

Michael agrees to make the trip from Iowa to Chicago, but he insists on driving. This way he can visit several essential landmarks on the way, including the world's largest ball of twine.

Frank, Huey and Dorothy (accompanied irrelevantly by Sparky, the publisher's beloved pooch) have no choice but to embark on a quasi-yellow-brick-road journey through one of the cheesiest road movies ever conceived.

During this banal saga of bar brawls (Michael, it turns out, is irresistible to women), car breakdowns and a whole lot of don't-worry-be-happy philosophy from Michael, we learn things about our rather uninteresting wayfarers.

Most significantly, we discover that Frank, a jaded hack who drank his way out of a real newspaper job before joining the National Mirror, needs to fall in love. Dorothy, it turns out, has ambitions to become a country-western songwriter. And if you think Andie MacDowell can't act, wait till you hear her sing.

We also learn the real reason for Michael's earthly visit, which has more to do with bad scriptwriting than divine intervention. Unfortunately, we figure it out a full hour before those brilliant news people.

After the disastrous "Mixed Nuts," her last holiday season folly, Ephron appears to have hunkered down for a career of pandering mediocrity. It's hard to believe that Ephron (who wrote "Michael" with her sister Delia, Jim Quinlan and Pete Dexter) is the same person who gave us "When Harry Met Sally . . ." and "Sleepless in Seattle." The warning signs come early in "Michael," when the titular angel's wings begin to shed their feathers. This is a Hollywood heads-up that our endearingly shabby archangel is on the wane, and that, before too long, this movie's going to get obsequiously bittersweet.

Emily Dickinson once said that hope is the thing with feathers. But "Michael" is the hopeless thing with feathers.

Michael, rated PG, contains nothing offensive unless you count the script.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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