Michael (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Undeterred by the universally hostile reaction to her previous holiday picture, Mixed Nuts, director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) is back at it again this year with Michael, the second angel-comes-to-Earth feature of the month. While this may not be quite as sweet as The Preacher's Wife, the central theme of redemption is essentially the same. And, even though the script for Michael moderates its sugary flavor with a dash of cynicism, it's no stretch to guess that the film is going for the same audience that's enchanted by such life-affirming classics as A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life.

John Travolta, fresh from Phenomenon and seemingly twenty pounds heavier, plays a grungy, chain-smoking, womanizing archangel named Michael. His purpose on Earth, in this, his final mission to the planet, is "to restore a man's heart" by imitating Cupid. That man is Frank Quinlan (William Hurt), a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune who has been reduced to writing stories for the tabloid National Mirror. Along with his best friend, Huey Driscoll (Robert Pastorelli), and Huey's dog, Sparky, they scour the country, looking for the unusual and the unbelievable. When they receive a letter from an elderly woman (Jean Stapleton) in Iowa claiming that she's living with an angel, the lure is too strong. The Mirror's editor, Vartan Malt (Bob Hoskins), sends Frank, Huey, and Sparky on assignment, along with newcomer Dorothy Winters (Andie MacDowell), an "angel expert."

William Hurt, who never emotes much in any role, is essentially reprising his emotional transformation from The Doctor. He starts out as a cold, remote, cynical man, but, through Michael's manipulations, he comes to realize that he still has feelings and can love someone. Hurt is excellent playing Frank before the thaw; his effectiveness diminishes greatly thereafter. Andie MacDowell is dreadfully miscast as Dorothy. She's supposed to be uncertain and vulnerable, but MacDowell never successfully conveys those characteristics, nor does she give us any particular reason to care about her character. A more interesting and energetic performance is turned in by Robert Pastorelli (Eraser), who dutifully plays the thankless role of Hurt's sidekick.

Surprisingly, Travolta, despite his top billing, stays in the background for most of the film. We don't actually see his face until twenty minutes into the running time, and, shortly thereafter, he takes a back seat (literally) to the humans. Michael's good for some one liners, but he's all charm without much personality. We like him because he's played by Travolta, not because the script gives us any real reason to. In fact, when you consider it, he's little more than a plot device.

There are times when Michael seems afflicted with a split personality. There's an edginess to the script that is repeatedly blunted by the feel-good saccharine that the Ephron sisters injected into their re-writes of Pete Dexter and Jim Quinlan's original treatment. Bits of the original still come through -- Michael isn't the most sympathetic of angels, for example -- but it's in conflict with the film's prevalent tone. There's a line spoken by Michael that illustrates the Ephrons' apparent view of life: "You can never have too much sugar."

Despite scenes of Travolta dancing, MacDowell singing, and Sparky attacking Bob Hoskins, Michael is a surprisingly lifeless affair. It's a little too low-key to be an effective romance and a little too soft to be anything more ambitious. Ultimately, it's neither offensive nor horrible; it's just another unspectacular, uninspired entry on Nora Ephron's erratic resume. I can't recommend Michael, but it's innocuous enough to be watchable -- provided you can summon the enthusiasm to stay awake.

Michael (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 1996-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1