This 1998 romantic drama is as fanciful as fantasy movies come, and John Seale’s beautiful cinematography goes a long way toward creating the dream-like quality essential to pull this type of movie off. Director Brad Silberling and screenwriter Dana Stevens have decided to amplify the romantic elements of Win Wenders’ wondrous 1987 classic, “Wings of Desire”, but stick to the basic plot elements. The transatlantic adaptation is not altogether successful because the greater themes of immortality and human fallibility in the original film have been submerged in favor of more individualized needs like sensuality and love. The thematic change trivializes the film into little more than a piece of romantic whimsy.
Now set in Los Angeles, the plot focuses on an angel named Seth who walks freely among the living and remains unseen unless he so desires. He gets drawn to Maggie Rice, an exacting surgeon who loses her first patient on the operating table. In the middle of her personal crisis, Seth comes into her life filling an emotional void, setting the stage for the pivotal decision he needs to make – remaining immortal as an angel or becoming human to experience the passion he feels for Maggie. Luckily, in probably her best dramatic performance, Meg Ryan is especially resonant as Maggie as she mutes her natural sprite-like manner into a palpable sadness that fits the character.
With a part that risks skirting parody during the first half, a steadily unblinking Nicolas Cage plays Seth in a plaintive, child-like manner until the story moves toward its inevitable climax. I still find it difficult to believe that Seth’s discomforting, Norman Bates-like manner would provide such a powerful attraction to Maggie at the outset. I also think the ending plot manipulations are a botch, a contemptible attempt to twist the viewer into thinking a greater point has been made when in fact, the viewer has been sucker-punched. Andre Braugher’s becalming manner is used to good effect as fellow angel Cassiel, and Dennis Franz is appropriately ostentatious as a junk-food-addicted hospital patient who is not what he appears to be. By the way, the interiors of the San Francisco Main Library (opened two years before) never looked better than under the guise of LA’s in this movie.
There are a surprising number of extras for such an early release DVD (1998) with three separate commentary tracks, the first by Silberling, the second by Stevens and co-producer Charles Roven, and the third by composer Gabriel Yared. Seale and production designer Lilly Kilvert contribute select-scene commentaries on the other side of the disc. There are two featurettes – a half-hour making-of documentary called “Making Angels” and a ten-minute short focused strictly on the visual effects. Seven deleted scenes, two music videos (including the Goo Goo Dolls’ then-omnipresent MTV hit, “Iris”), and the theatrical trailer round out the major DVD extras.