From the beginning, he’s had those eyes — those sad, sensitive, love-me-tender eyes that hover with liquid passivity, beckoning you to acknowledge their pain. He had them in his first starring role, in Valley Girl (1983), where he played a new-wave Romeo from the wrong side of the tracks. He had them in Moonstruck (1987) and, most tellingly, in Leaving Las Vegas (1995), where his sweetly flamboyant alcoholic romantic — Elvis meets Rimbaud — seemed to gaze, at Elisabeth Shue and at the audience, with the imploring distress of a man about to let go of his dream. For all that, the characters of Nicolas Cage have usually been marked by fits of rage and sheer cuckoo extravagance that leavened the actor’s sentimental melancholy. It’s doubtful that he has ever showcased his delicate soul with quite the moist relentlessness he displays in City of Angels (Warner Bros.).

As Seth, an angel who wanders the earth, lingering in hospitals and other crisis sites so that he can clasp the hands of the dying and lead them into heaven, Cage looks as if he’s out to win the heartbreak sweepstakes. He’s all soft, gooey compassion — a black-velvet puppy-dog painting come to life. He spends the entire movie staring and caring. Cage, it must be said, can beam reverently with the best of them. Still, it’s hard to play a saint without becoming a pain; the line between enraptured empathy and movie-star narcissism is a thin one indeed. Cage steps over it in City of Angels, but then, the film steps over it too. A loose remake of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’ 1988 epic of mystical art kitsch, City of Angels is a woozy piece of ”spiritual” hokum, in which Cage’s beatific Seth falls in love with a human and must agree to fall to earth to be with her.

The human is Maggie (Meg Ryan), a Los Angeles heart surgeon who’s experiencing a fuzzified ache of her own. After losing a patient, she becomes convinced that…what? That life and death are out of her hands? That she should stop operating? Let’s just say that Meg Ryan begins to look as saturated with celestial concern as her costar. Seth, along with his fellow angel Cassiel (Andre Braugher), has been hanging out in Maggie’s operating room. Like most angels, he can’t be seen or touched. But oh, how he’d like to be! And how he’d like Maggie to do the touching! Then she looks over at him and, in some deep-bonding way that the film never quite explains, suddenly sees him too.

When Seth keeps popping up, over and over (in the hospital, the library, and so on), Maggie simply accepts his presence. She doesn’t appear to mind that this haunted-looking guy in the black overcoat is essentially stalking her. The movie’s folly is that the romance would have had more life had Maggie displayed a few doubts about Seth before falling meekly into his arms.

City of Angels is the sort of movie in which it’s not just the angels who are good. Everyone on screen ends up swathed in gauzy benevolence. Seth and Cassiel have the ability to read people’s thoughts, and the ones we hear sound like word balloons in a religious comic book; nobody has a mean or dirty idea in their heads. Still, can you achieve dramatic force without a few personality bristles? Even Capra’s sweet-corn fantasies were spiked with feisty bad behavior. So was the earthling-meets-otherworldly-creature comedy of Splash. Shot like a glossy paean to urban renewal, City of Angels is an exercise in rapt, soapy quietude — a hymn to sappiness. You practically have time to say a prayer in the dead spaces between lines, or to tote up the lapses in logic (why, for instance, does Cassiel say that he wishes he could read a newspaper — from what we can see, these angels certainly have eyes). This syrupy fable about becoming human is too cloyingly abstract to divine much difference between our world and the next one. All the difference finally comes down to is feeling water on your skin — or, in a pinch, having to take public transportation. C

City of Angels
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