Angels are man’s and the movies’ way of dealing with the idea of God. They look like us, for one thing, so a casting call isn’t out of the question. For another, they allow directors to answer our prayers under the guise of eternal truths. John Travolta, in the new-to-tape Michael, is a seraph for our drained yet hopeful end of the century: He smokes about a pack a day but smells of home-baked cookies. It’s hard to imagine a being so flawed and holy in a film made in any other era. But the way angels look and act in movies has everything to do with the emotional needs of the pop-culture moment.
The angel in Michael is possessed with luminous grace too. He’s played by John Travolta, so how could he not? But the great big joke at the center of director/co-writer Nora Ephron’s comedy is that this particular archangel isn’t very heavenly. He smokes, he’s got a gut, he’s a horndog with the ladies. He’s the angel as Sweathog. And he has come to earth one last time to — well, it’s not entirely clear. I think it’s to make a callous tabloid reporter (William Hurt) relocate his heart, which seems a little penny-ante for a guy who once wrestled Satan.
Ephron directs here as she did in 1994’s Mixed Nuts — with a lead glove. There’s no whimsy that she won’t hammer home with a cutesy-poo musical selection, no banter between Hurt and fellow reporters Robert Pastorelli and Andie MacDowell that doesn’t nudge us with overwritten cleverness. And yet, in its on-the-road midsection, as the foursome tootle through back-road bars and diners, Michael finds a rhythm of ramshackle naturalism that’s far more expansive and meaningful than Date’s teenybop insularity. Here, Ephron’s liability as a director — she lets scenes run on too long — turns into an asset as she allows her characters and, by extension, us to play in the cow fields of the Lord.
Then she has the gall to let the cute dog get smooshed by a truck so that Michael has to resurrect it, and the movie falls back into plastic Hollywood hell. (Sorry, but if I really ruined the ending for you, you haven’t seen enough movies.) For a moment, though, Michael delivers an angel we can use right now — rumpled, bemused, and finding harmony in the bric-a-brac of small-town America. The messenger has changed, and will continue to change, but the message has a comforting familiarity: It’s still a wonderful life. B-