Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

MICHAEL (1996) * 1/2

Directed by Nora Ephron. Written by Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron and Peter Dexter & Jim Quinlan. Story by Dexter & Quinlan. Photography, John Lindley. Editing, Geraldine Peroni. Production design, Dan Davis. Music, Randy Newman. Producers, Sean Daniel, Nora Ephron, James Jacks. Exec. producers, Delia Ephron, Jonathan D.Crane.Cast: John Travolta (Michael), Andie MacDowell (Dorothy), William Hurt (Frank), Bob Hoskins (Vartan Malt, the editor), Robert Pastorelli (Huey), Jean Stapleton (Pansy Milbank), Teri Garr (the Judge), the dog Sparky, et al. A Turner Picture, Alphaville Production released by New Line Cinema. 106 min. PG.
Movie fantasies about or with angels are a tricky genre. Not a proliferating one, thank Heaven. "It's a Wonderful Life" is the perennial champion. Other popular movies include Cocteau's classic "Orpheus," "Stairway to Heaven," "For Heaven's Sake," "Wings of Desire," "The Bishop's Wife" (remade as the current "The Preacher's Wife"). A companion genre deals with ghosts: the superb "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," the amusing "The Ghost Goes West," "Ghost," "Blithe Spirit," the old "Peter Ibbetson," the wonderful, fairly recent "Truly Madly Deeply." There are also films with heavenly envoys like "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" or entertaining visits to Satan, like the original "Heaven Can Wait."

"Michael" is a disappointment, doubly so as it was made by the talented journalist, novelist, essayist, and filmmaker Nora Ephron. Her excellent track record as screenwriter and/or director, includes "Silkwood," "When Harry Met Sally," "This is My Life," "Sleepless in Seattle" and the very funny but terribly underrated Steve Martin vehicle "My Blue Heaven."

"Michael" is already making gadzillions at the box office, mostly on the strength of John Travolta whose comeback has been stupendous. But ticket sales are absolutely not a measure of movie quality.

Here we have partners Hurt and Pastorelli who are reporters (so to speak) for the Chicago-published "The National Mirror," one of those supermarket tabloids that stop at nothing. With their irascible editor Hoskins the buddies have an unlikely relationship which is also muddy, like most of the movie.

Hurt gets a fan letter from Jean Stapleton (as Pansy Milbank), who invites him to come to her home in rural Iowa and meet a real angel who is staying with her. We never know how much of this the journalists believe, but they quickly talk Hoskins into an assignment. As improbabilities pile up, the boss adds to the team the just-hired MacDowell, a multi-divorced dog trainer. In another of the film's arbitrarinesses Hoskins decides on the spot that she is a specialist on angels.

Widow Milbank is the owner of a decrepit, 1930's style motel of clientless cabins. The angel is genuine but not typecast. He is an ill-kempt, chain-smoking, boozing, cussing yahoo who eats like a slob, likes sex and in certain ways seems related to Archie Bunker -- the TV husband of Jean Stapleton. But he does have wings and some odd kind of maverick appeal.

"Michael" soon becomes a road movie as the trio drive Michael to Chicago. It's a long trip because Michael, always cheerful and full of bad jokes and hearty yuk-yuks wants to take in sights of Americana, such as the world's largest ball of twine and the biggest non-stick fry-pan.

No one ever notices that he is an angel, because the film cheats. Even though he wears a large overcoat, his winged back ought to have bulged like Notre Dame's Quasimodo's, but doesn't. More cheating follows as Michael somehow becomes more couth.

In restaurants, no one objects to his smoking. Women go for him in the blink of an eye. In one place Michael improvises a dance with two girls who are joined by the rest of the female clientele. There's still a lot Saturday night fever left in the older and bulkier Travolta. This part is what, in my rating, accounts for the extra half-star.

Predictably, this leads to an attack by local yokels, a major melee and an appearance before Judge Teri Garr who wants to see Michael in chambers. You guess the rest. You are also guessing, for no valid reason except that you know Hollywood's standards, that Andie and John will bond, to put it politely.

Back on the road we learn that Andie is a part-time composer of country music. She sings a sample in another eatery where a lot of "poetic" nonsense about pies fills the air.

The main trouble with this movie is a boring, four-writer script which illustrates the saying "A camel is a horse built by a committee." The dialogue is dull, dull, dull, uinteresting and unwitty. The acting by the three non-angelic principals is minimal and wooden.These characters lack character, appeal, personality, dimensionality or connections to one another. Lifeless Pastorelli is even upstaged by his dog Sparky. This sketchiness extends to the supporting roles.

Travolta does his best of a bad scene as he tries to be whimsical, funny and likable. Nothing helps. Twenty-six songs try to rescue the movie. They don't help either. You sense all along the frantic, exponentially growing searches for what to do next.

It's a long trip to Chicago, longer for the public than for the actors. It's not often that a would-be humorously feel-good picture goes by without some audience laughter or appreciative sounds, yet the many people I saw it with were entirely silent throughout. At least, nobody snored.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel