Loosely based on Wim Wenders’ enchanting 1987 “Wings of Desire,” Brad Silberling’s “City of Angels” is a superlatively crafted romantic drama that solidly stands on its own merits. Like the German film, new pic offers a haunting, lyrical meditation on such universal issues as spirit vs. matter, human courage and the true meaning of love and desire. The endlessly resourceful Nicolas Cage, as a celestial angel, and a terrifically engaging Meg Ryan, as a pragmatic surgeon, create such blissful chemistry that they elevate the drama to a poetic level seldom reached in a mainstream movie. Topline stars — and an exceedingly handsome production — should help position the film as a major spring release. But Warners still faces a challenge in marketing a stylish movie with philosophical overtones that deviates substantially from Hollywood’s more conventional romantic fare.
“City of Angels” is a rarity, a big-budget, star-studded studio movie that approximates European art films not only in its thematic concerns but also in tone, style and design. Indeed, there’s evidence throughout the narrative of the strain between making an original, uncompromised film and a more formulaic, crowd-pleasing meller. This is particularly so in the last reel, when the filmmakers carry the romantic elements to an excessively sappy level that’s not in keeping with pic’s tone in its earlier sections. Nonetheless, for the most part, the film avoids the pitfalls of schmaltzy Hollywood fare like “Ghost” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” Following a splendid overhead shot of L.A., pic introduces its sympathetic protagonists: Seth (Cage), a restless angel on duty in the city, and Cassiel (Andre Braugher), his celestial comrade who’s more at ease with himself. Gliding through town on the lookout for human suffering, the two discuss the differences between angels and human beings.
Action then switches to a hospital operating room, where Maggie (Ryan), an accomplished heart surgeon, loses her patient. Deeply shaken by the experience, and struggling to understand it in scientific terms, she undergoes a crisis of confidence. Unbeknownst to Maggie, Seth is in the room: Watching her misery, he falls hard for her.
Gradually, despite the risks involved, Seth decides to become visible to Maggie, changing in the process from an imperceptible spirit to a mysterious stranger with no identifiable past. Perplexed by Seth’s unusual compassion and courtship, Beth becomes intrigued.
As is often the norm in such films, Maggie is engaged to be married to Jordan (Colm Feore), a yuppie doctor, though, clearly, she’s unsure he’s the right man. Confused and bewildered by her vulnerability to Seth, the always rational Maggie begins to question the sanity of loving a seemingly “perfect” man who challenges her basic value system.
Drawing intriguing parallels between the two characters, scripter Dana Stevens has Seth experience his own frustrations as a “partial occupant” of the human world. Seth longs for the sensory realm he had previously only observed from a distance. He wants to know the taste of a pear, the feeling of tears, the pain of a wound — a longing that forces Seth to decide between keeping his status as an angel and becoming a full-fledged human being.
Narrative gets richer and more complex through the inclusion of secondary characters, such as Messinger (Dennis Franz), Maggie’s bright patient who knows Seth’s secret, and Anne (Robin Bartlett), a colleague at the hospital who inadvertently facilitates Maggie’s transformation.
Departing from the plot of “Wings of Desire,” in which the sad angels were silent partners witnessing human conduct, and in which the romantic affair occurred at the end, current pic’s angels are more active, and the cou-ple meet in the first reel. “City of Angels” brings to mind several themes that were developed by Krzysztof Kieslowski in “The Double Life of Veronique” and the “Three Colors” trilogy — specifically, the mysterious workings of fate and the feeling shared by many individuals that they are not alone, that they are being observed by invisible forces.
To Stevens’ credit, the contrasts between scientific rationality and spirituality, and between dictates of the heart and those of the head (a perennial American theme), don’t come across as overly schematic. Nonetheless, it will largely depend on viewers’ predisposition whether they accept the notion of an angel exercising his free will to decide whether to become mortal for the sake of love.
In his sophomore effort, helmer Silberling (“Casper”), makes a huge leap forward, showing his passion for the material with subtle, controlled direction. A number of staged sequences (particularly in the first hour) beautifully highlight pic’s central motifs, celebrating leaps of the imagination as well as the victory of faith when fueled by intense love.
Tech credits are top-drawer across the board. John Seale’s dynamic visuals illustrate the celestial narrative without relying on special effects. With the remarkable assistance of production designer Lilly Kilvert, editor Lynzee Klingman and composer Gabriel Yared, pic conveys a sense of altered reality through graceful slow motion and exciting long takes of quintessential L.A. vistas (downtown’s Central Market, Mulholland Drive, Malibu Beach, LAX’s control tower), all shot from the angels’ p.o.v.
But ultimately, what gives the movie its special grace is the exquisite, nuanced acting of Cage as the rebel, Pinocchio-like angel who wants to be a real boy. Using expressive movements and slightly stylized gestures, he gives one of his most low-key and lyrical performances.
Casting aside her customary “cute” look, Ryan excels as a down-to-earth surgeon whose entire set of beliefs is shaken by her encounter with Seth. Impressive supporting work also comes from TV’s two tough cops, Franz (“NYPD Blue”), as a free spirit who fully embraces life’s pleasures, and Braugher (“Homicide”), as the more serene angel.
Whether intended or not, “City of Angels” plays like a valentine to Los Angeles, romanticizing the city in a manner not seen since the 1991 Steve Martin starrer “L.A. Story.”