John Travolta's charismatic screen presence is the only element that propels "Michael" over its rough narrative spots and scattered direction. Though a logical extension of his role in "Phenomenon," Travolta plays a heaven-sent angel who brings joy, love and redemption to a team of cynical and frustrated tabloid journalists.

John Travolta’s charismatic screen presence is the only element that propels “Michael” over its rough narrative spots and scattered direction. In a logical extension of his role in “Phenomenon,” Travolta plays a heaven-sent angel who brings joy, love and redemption to a team of cynical and frustrated tabloid journalists. Though Travolta boasts an impeccable box office track record since his “Pulp Fiction” comeback, his star power is not likely to repeat “Phenomenon’s” miracle, but it will certainly guarantee the film solid standing during the crowded holiday season and an even brighter future as a video title.

The shadows of master filmmakers Frank Capra and Howard Hawks, among others, loom large over Nora Ephron’s flawed romantic fable, not only in the small-town setting and main characters of washed-out journalists, but also in the tone of a would-be screwball comedy. Unfortunately, Ephron lacks the vision and skill to pull it off. With only four films to her credit, the helmer is already repeating herself, borrowing themes from her successful romantic comedy “Sleepless in Seattle” as well as her disastrous “Mixed Nuts.”

“Michael” might just as well have been titled “Mixed Nuts,” because it echoes that film in both its Christmas setting and its focus on a group of lonesome professionals desperate for love, valor and compassion. New pic also suffers from the same vignettish structure and lopsided tempo that marred Ephron’s 1994 comedy. On the plus side, “Michael” has the pleasing romantic notes of “Sleepless in Seattle” in the relationship between a terrific William Hurt and not-so-terrific Andie MacDowell, who’s cast in a role that Barbara Stanwyck or Claudette Colbert would have played to perfection.

Tale begins in the editorial offices of the National Mirror, a sleazy tabloid run by feisty publisher Vartan Malt (Bob Hoskins). When rumor of an angel’s existence reaches the magazine, bitter, down-on-his-luck journalist Frank Quinlan (Hurt) senses a front-page scoop, but his boss won’t let him track the alleged angel by himself. Instead, he sends along Huey Driscoll (Robert Pastorelli), another troubled reporter, and Dorothy Winters (MacDowell), a mysterious woman who claims to be an “angel expert.”

If the trio fails to deliver a “hot” story about Michael, boss Vartan threatens to fire Huey and take away his dog, Sparky, the magazine’s true star and cash cow. Week after week, millions of readers anxiously await the glorious photo of the mutt, posing with yet another set of politicians or international celebs.

Action then switches to the Capraesque setting of small-town Iowa and the shabby house of Pansy Milbank (Jean Stapleton), an elderly woman living with Michael, an angel who reportedly flattened the local bank to free her from desperate financial straits. Pansy claims that Michael appeared in Iowa out of nowhere. Other than wings, the angel is quite ordinary, sporting razor stubble, long, unkempt hair and a big belly.

Once the ragtag team and Michael hit the road to Chicago, yarn assumes the shape of an awkward road comedy. Spars — and occasionally sparks — abound along the way. Quinlan and Dorothy spend so much time squabbling that we know it’s only a matter of time before they end up in each other’s arms. It takes Michael’s heavenly philosophy and enchanting powers to bring Sparky back to life after the pooch is hit by a truck, and to transform a bunch of disenchanted cynics into hopeful lovers and “believers.”

Michael has a particularly strong influence on women: Whenever the group stops for a rest, he acts like a playboy (his wings covered by a coat), and all the waitresses stare at him with yearning. In a charming scene, the quartet goes to a pub and Michael begins to dance — by now a staple in Travolta’s movies. One by one, the women in the bar desert their beaus and circle around him like bees. Benefiting from Travolta’s charming poise and abundant sex appeal, this and a few other sequences hold special allure for female viewers.

Though no fewer than four scripters are credited, “Michael” is at once underwritten and overwritten. Rowdy, slapdash and unevenly directed, the movie is basically a collection of episodes tied together with a flimsy string. In the lethargically paced scenes, Ephron gives the impression that she completed her job at the casting level, leaving the thesps to their own devices.

This strategy works for the ever-resourceful Travolta and for a pro like Hurt (who does a deft job of his specialty, playing the surly, crabby hero). But it backfires with MacDowell, who lacks the lightness and technique to pull off a sharp, sassy, often-married femme.

Before turning to filmmaking, Ephron was a sharp essayist and scripter, but the films she’s directed are increasingly insipid and flavorless. “Michael” contains one-too-many earnest passages, and its ending amounts to shameless commercial pandering. There’s a big death scene, a la “Phenomenon,” and the central couple is reunited in a similarly sticky and calculated way as were the leads in “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Pic lacks visual distinction, and its production values are average, including the editing of Geraldine Peroni, who has done excellent work for Robert Altman but here can’t conceal the material’s rough transitions in locale and mood.

Michael

Production

A New Line release of a Turner Pictures presentation of an Alphaville production. Produced by Sean Daniel, Nora Ephron, James Jacks. Executive producers, Delia Ephron, Jonathan D. Krane. Co-producer, G. Mac Brown. Directed by Nora Ephron. Screenplay, Nora Ephron, Delia Ephron, Peter Dexter, Jim Quinlan, based on a story by Dexter and Quinlan.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor) John Lindley; editor, Geraldine Peroni; music, Randy Newman; production design, Dan Davis; art direction, James Tocci; set decoration, Tracey Doyle; costume design, Elizabeth McBride; sound (Dolby), Geoffrey Lucius Patterson; special effects coordinator, David Blitstein; special visual effects, Sony Pictures Imageworks; visual effects supervisor, Stephen Rosenbaum; associate producers, Donald J. Lee Jr., Alan Curtiss; assistant director, Curtiss; casting, Mary Goldberg. Reviewed at the New Line Cinema screening room, L.A., Dec. 4, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Michael - John Travolta Dorothy Winters - Andie MacDowell Frank Quinlan - William Hurt Vartan Malt - Bob Hoskins Huey Driscoll - Robert Pastorelli Pansy Milbank - Jean Stapleton Judge Esther Newberg - Teri Garr
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