I was worried about watching City of Angels. It’s based on one of my favourite films, Wim Wenders’ 1987 Wings of Desire and I was concerned that an American remake would make the original seem hokey in retrospect. However, despite similar openings that track the interior monologues of the isolated inhabitants of a city, the remake diverges from the original with its early emphasis on the romance between Nicolas Cage’s angel and Meg Ryan’s cycling urban surgeon, Maggie.
Cage plays the role of Seth – an angel who watches over those in need – with a kind of double glazed intensity. His movements are slow and his voice is stripped of his usual odd pauses and erratic cadences and becomes unusually monotonous. In Wenders’ film, Bruno Ganz plays the angel with detached, earnest worldliness, whereas Cage is doe-eyed, like Kevin Spacey (in K-Pax) playing Haley Joel Osment (in A.I.) He seems quite convincingly otherworldly, although at times the performance can feel sinister; perhaps the director’s previous work on the live-action Casper movie contributed to Seth’s characterisation as a slightly creepy naif. When Seth stood unseen by Maggie behind a refrigerator door, or chopped a cabbage with a steak knife the film felt as if it could quite convincingly be re-edited as an angelic slasher movie.
But Cage is always endearing, and Seth is an unusually feminine character. The angel’s naivety extends to sex, and when Meg Ryan asks him how ‘it’ feels, she seems more dominant and he more submissive. It was unusual to see in a Hollywood film, and unusual for the characters that Cage tends to play in mainstream films. Maggie’s unremarkable surgeon boyfriend proposes to her towards the end of the film, with a speech that must be one of the least romantic on film. In a locker room he looks cursorily into her eyes and says “We belong together. We’re the same species” as if he’d previously been married to his dog and it hadn’t worked out. The film teaches us that inter-species love always fails; Seth has to ‘fall’, literally from the top of a half-constructed skyscraper in order to secure a relationship with Maggie… although we might as well just say Meg Ryan, Maggie Rice’s initials are the same, indicating that we should see them as interchangeable.
The only possible Cageism in the film comes when a distraught Seth places pear after pear from a market stall into his basket, the pears reminding him of Maggie. The pear plucking is typical of Cage, being a highly-specified movement focused on an idiosyncratic object, performed with hyper-real stylisation. We might think of the Eva Mendes spoon fondling of Bad Lieutenant, the jelly bean martinis of Ghost Rider or the snake skin jacket in Wild at Heart. Yet, otherwise this is Cage at his most restrained, breaking out into ecstatic joy only when made human – the joy being in the tactile world of objects represented by the pears.
While the film lacks the soft-glazed beauty of Wenders’ original and some of its emotive motifs (pregnant bellies and ocean waves) seem a little over-determined, a plot twist near the end is kept admirably uncloying and everyone involved seems sincere about the project – which is really all you can ask for a Hollywood remake of a European art house film.