Published April 1, 1998
City of Angels by Brad Silberling is a remake of Wim Wenders’s The Wings of Desire which takes many of Wenders’s best ideas and puts them in the service of a standard issue, Hollywood chick flick—a Wallis Simpson fantasy about some big shot guy who gives up everything for a gal. And what a lot this big shot has to give up! He is an angel named Seth (Nicholas Cage) who for the love of perky doctor Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan) avails himself of the option afforded all angels to “fall” or renounce their celestial natures and become human. Seth meets and is encouraged by one Nathan Messinger (Dennis Franz) who turns out to have been an angel too, who gave up angelhood for the comely Theresa (Joanna Merlin) and a house full of kids and, now, grandkids.
One of the problems with this film is that Meg Ryan is only a little more plausible as a heart surgeon than Julia Roberts would be. Maggie listens to rock music in the OR—and loses a patient. I’d start the investigation right there, if I were her supervisor, but the movie insists that it is not her fault. She did all she could. Though supposed to be an experienced surgeon, she is unaccountably shaken by the death of this overweight, middle-aged guy and seems to think that she ought to have the power of life and death—something I doubt many surgeons in reality do. “I suddenly have this feeling,” she says, “that none of this, nothing is in my hands; and if it isn’t, what do I do with that?”
Real surgeons are presumably disabused of this sense of their own control earlier in their career than this, and it is just silly to answer, as Maggie does, the observation that “people die” by saying: “Not on my table they don’t.” But the point is merely to show her beginning to wrestle with the metaphysics of death and the afterlife—which turn out to be only what we expect from Hollywood. “We fight for people’s lives in here, right?” asks Maggie of a colleague. “Did you ever wonder who we’re fighting with?” Duh! The angel of death, of course. Only he apparently doesn’t exist. Only the good angels like Seth and his pals. Why are the angels all men, by the way? Hasn’t heaven heard about women’s rights and affirmative action?
Interestingly, in the Wim Wenders original, they were men too, but Bruno Ganz in the Nicholas Cage role gave up his angelic existence for a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) rather than a heart surgeon: more the eternal feminine than the prim feminist. What has to be the “sexist” paradox offered us by Wenders is that the woman’s mystery and desirability, standing for all sensuous experience denied the angels, is greater even than that of heaven itself, and the film ends with a rhapsodic paean to lasting love between the trapeze artist and the ex-angel who writes, “I now know what no angel knows.” Needless to say, not a lot of this subtlety survives the translation to Southern California, where Miss Ryan’s sensuous hunger is of a less ambiguous kind and only arbitrarily tied to the realm of transcendental things.
And, indeed, the whole film is rather a celebration of mere feeling on a pretty basic level. Seth is a big reader and is particularly fond of Hemingway (in Wings the presiding literary deity was Homer) because “he never forgets to describe what things taste like.” Likewise, where Mr Ganz’s first taste of earthly delights were coffee and a cigarette (typical German intellectual!), Mr Cage goes for the much more wholesome and American choice of pears, sex and body-surfing. It’s not a bad summing up of what earth has to offer, I admit, but one can’t avoid the suspicion that maybe heaven doesn’t quite get a fair shake here. It’s hard to tell because its bloodlessness is made to come off badly by the comparison at every encounter with the Californian Eden.
Thus the film seems to me almost to reverse Wenders’s vision. So insistent is it on making earth a paradise of sensuousness, we can’t imagine why all the angels wouldn’t chuck in their wings (they certainly don’t look as if they’re having a very good time) and find some earthbound babe to shack up with. Like a game show contestant, Seth chooses the washing machine behind door number two rather than risk all on some problematic eternity behind door number three. “I would rather,” he says, “have had one breath of her hair, one kiss of her mouth, one touch of her hand than eternity without it.” Well, maybe so, but from what we see eternity hasn’t got much to offer anyway. So these are just words, suspiciously like the kind that you might hear not from a messenger of God but in a cheap romance novel.