American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Angels are big right now in pop entertainment, no doubt because everybody gets one. New Age spirituality is me-oriented, and gives its followers top billing in the soap operas of their own lives. People like to believe they've had lots of previous incarnations, get messages in their dreams and are psychic. But according to the theory of karma, if you were Joan of Arc in a past life and are currently reduced to studying Marianne Williamson paperbacks, you must have made a wrong turn.
When there's a trend toward humility and selflessness, then we'll know we're getting somewhere on the spiritual front. That time is not yet. "City of Angels" hits the crest of the boom in angel movies--and like most of them, it's a love story. Hollywood is interested in priests and nuns only when they break the vow of chastity, and with angels only when they get the hots for humans. Can you imagine a movie in which a human renounces sexuality and hopes to become an angel? Still, as angel movies go, this is one of the better ones, not least because Meg Ryan is so sunny and persuasive as a heart surgeon who falls in love with an angel. This is one of her best performances, as Dr. Maggie Rice, who loses a patient early in the film and then, in despair, finds herself being comforted by an angel named Seth (Nicolas Cage). The amazing thing is that she can see him. Angels are supposed to be invisible, and hang around in long black coats, looking over people's shoulders and comparing notes at dawn and dusk.
Seth is deeply moved that he is visible to Maggie. He has wondered for a while (which in his case could be millions of years) what it would be like to have a physical body. "Do you ever wonder what that would be like--touching?" he asks another angel. Maggie has a patient named Nathaniel Messinger (Dennis Franz) who is due for a heart operation, and as she watches him sleeping she tips her hand: "No dying, now, Mr. Messinger--not until you give me Seth's phone number." She knows Seth is special: "Those eyes. The way he looked right down into me." Soon she has him over for dinner, and he slices his finger but does not bleed. She feels betrayed, and cuts him again. Still no blood. She slaps him: "You freak! Just get out! Get out!" This is jarringly the wrong note, forced and artificial, but required by modern screenplay formulas that specify that the loving couple must fight and break up so that later they can get back together.
There are revelations in the story, involving Mr. Messinger and others, that I will leave you to discover. There's also a surprise development toward the end that the movie sets up so mechanically that it comes as an anticlimax. It's not a perfect movie, and there are times when Cage seems more soppy and dewy-eyed than necessary. But it has a heart, and Meg Ryan convincingly plays a woman who has met the perfect soul mate.