As the millennium approaches, we're witnessing an influx of angels. There was Angels in America on Broadway. There's "Touched by an Angel" on television. And now there's City of Angels, a cinematic postcard sent to us from that old devil's playground, Hollywood. To many religious types, Hollywood is the modern equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah, but that ignores the angel perched on Dream City's other shoulder. From The Bishop's Wife to The Preacher's Wife, postwar Hollywood has had a soft spot for God's little helpers--not the fearsome angels of the Bible, and not the chubby-cheeked cherubs dangling from Christmas tree branches, but ordinary, approachable angels. Angels made in our own image. Human angels, if you will. The angels in City of Angels wear dark shoes, dark pants and long dark overcoats, as if the bright California sun is something they've only heard about, not actually felt. At dawn and at dusk, these celestial beings--the ultimate extraterrestrials--gather at the beach to listen to the music of the spheres. (Spaced equally apart, they look like the bowler-hatted men descending upon Brussels in a famous painting by Magritte.) The rest of the day and night, they sidle up to people and tune in to their thoughts--listening, recording, sometimes offering silent comfort. Eventually, they offer us the greatest comfort of all, ushering our souls into the hereafter once our bodies have given up on us. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. Nicolas Cage's Seth has been doing it for...well, for an eternity, when one day, while attending to his duties, he happens upon Meg Ryan's Maggie, a heart surgeon whose own heart is breaking as a result of having lost one of her patients. An extraordinarily attractive secular humanist, Maggie doesn't have room in her cosmology for angels. Of course, she hasn't met Seth. Nor would we expect her to meet him, since the angels in City of Angels aren't visible to humans. But it turns out they can choose to be visible. And visible isn't the only thing they can choose to be. By doing a swan dive off the top floor of a skyscraper that's still under construction, Seth can shed his angelic wings and join the vast sea of humanity below. In other words, he's capable of literally falling in love--a good thing, since he's half of the movie's angel-meets-girl, angel-gets-girl, angel-loses-girl premise. According to the press material, City of Angels was inspired by Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire, but perhaps not inspired enough. Set in a still-divided Berlin where angels could be neither seen nor heard but somehow sensed, Wings of Desire was a tone poem to the possibility of faith--not faith in life after death but faith in life before death. Drawing on the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Wenders created a mood of such somber enchantment that it seemed closer to disenchantment, or what the Germans call weltschmerz--sentimental pessimism. The mood that director Brad Silberling has created for City of Angels seems closer to weltschmaltz--sentimental optimism. And the relevant poet isn't Rilke, but that old sun-chaser, Rod McKuen. Even so, the movie succeeds in casting a spell, especially early on. And it's a spell that, for a piece of Hollywood schmaltz, has a surprising amount of schmerz. Silberling, whose first film was Casper, has graduated from the friendly ghost to the Holy Ghost; this time, people actually die. In fact, death lurks around every corner of the movie's plot, from the man whose heart Maggie tries to massage back to life to the Falstaffian figure played by Dennis Franz, who massages his own heart problems with pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Like Seth, we're supposed to admire the way the Franz character keeps taking a big bite out of life, and we actually might if Franz had any sense of joie de vivre. (It's like watching Sipowicz play Zorba the Greek.) The movie itself lacks joie de vivre, considering that joie de vivre is its raison d'être. Although she's perfectly charming, Ryan underplays Maggie, and Cage does a lot less than that. Keeping his voice low and slow, he creeps through the movie like Nosferatu. (You never know whether he's going to lay a hand on someone's shoulder or sink his teeth into their throat.) Of course, this is the guy who once based a performance on Gumby's horse, Pokey. Not for the first time, Cage appears to be inhabiting a world of his own.
That pretty well dissolves any chemistry between Seth and Maggie, and yet Cage's commitment to the role--the sheer intensity of it--rubs off on us. So does the movie's willingness to at least toy with despair. Like James Brooks' As Good as It Gets, City of Angels sets enormous obstacles between the boy and the girl in what would otherwise be a rather conventional love story, and then doesn't so much overcome the obstacles as render them irrelevant. "Some things are true whether you believe in them or not," Seth tells Maggie. It's a line that could have come out of "The X-Files." Or a Sunday sermon. I can't say I believed in City of Angels, but it strikes me as a true reflection of our need to believe, both in angels and in love.