Even in the absence of religious fervor, the iconography of angels is comforting.
Twenty years ago, in the midst of the mid-’90s John Travoltaissance, Nora Ephron’s film Michael managed to gross more than $100 million at the box office. It’s not a particularly beloved film, nor has it’s anniversary taken up much space on anyone’s personal calendar. But even this far removed from the sugar rush hype of a movie star’s comeback, there’s a charming warmth to the film that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Michael features the aforementioned Travolta as the titular archangel, albeit presented in a somewhat shocking interpretation. Rather than the melancholy seraphim of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, Michael is a stocky, thick-waisted enfant terrible. There’s a gluttonous abandon about his every mannerism. Outside of his wingspan, there’s not much heavenly about him. This is an angel obsessed with beer, smokes, fucking and Frosted Flakes. Every so often, as has been throughout eternity, Michael, and others angels, have been given short bursts of time amongst mankind. This current outing is to be Michael’s last, and so he relishes it, gorging himself on sugar and sex.
He’s living with an old woman named Pansy (Jean Stapleton) when a tabloid reporter fallen from grace (William Hurt’s Frank Quinlan) hears there’s a man with wings hiding out in Iowa. Quinlan, once a real writer, doesn’t quite have what it takes to make it at the National Mirror. He’s cynical and burnt out, but not enough to excel at this rag’s particular brand of exploitation. His boss, Vartan Malt (Bob Hoskins), is ready to fire him and photographer Huey Driscoll (Robert Pastorelli), but this story, a real angel on Earth, is their last chance to make good.
Malt sends them out with a woman named Dorothy Winters (Andie MacDowell) who claims to be an expert on angels and who immediately displays the kind of prickly chemistry with Quinlan that’s formed the basis of so many he vs she screwball comedies. Once the trio (alongside Driscoll’s dog Sparly, the National Mirror’s mascot) meet Michael for the first time, it becomes clear that he’s been waiting for their arrival. Michael may seem like a dionysian blowhard, but his mission for his final “vacation” is more angelic than it first appears.
Michael is a quaint film, to be sure. The stakes are relatively low, and it’s schmaltzy to a fault. It has Ephron’s uniquely human touch, but it doesn’t match the heights of superior films like You’ve Got Mail. It does, however, mirror that later film’s Capra-esque idealism. There’s something Preston Sturges-y about the way she builds this story of hope and optimism surrounded by ’90s skepticism. It’s got a brisk enough pace and the dialogue is shrewdly clever, but there’s also some truly evocative imagery throughout. An old woman’s death occurs just outside of the frame, as an egg she was preparing to crack crashes into an iron skillet. The one true miracle Michael performs is photographed with a holy, stirring touch.
Ephron’s direction aside, this is a movie that succeeds on the palpable charm of its cast. While he delivered many, many underwhelming turns during this era, Michael is buoyed by the full weight of Travolta’s charisma, complete with an iconic dance sequence set to “Chain of Fools.” His smirking wonder at the simplest things humanity has to offer stand in direct opposition to Hurt’s wounded cynicism and MacDowell’s weary, lovelorn yearning. From the minute they share the screen together, it’s obvious that Quinlan and Winters will most likely end up together in the end, but the journey to that inevitable conclusion feels hard-won with two performers believably falling for one another under the subtle guidance of an indulgent celestial.
No one’s going to revisit this movie and find it to be an underrated gem or reevaluate it as Travolta’s best work or anything. But checking back in on it so many years removed from the last time he seemed to give a fuck as an actor, it’s not such a shock that it was a hit. Even in the absence of religious fervor, the iconography of angels is comforting. It’s nice to glance at the sky and believe there’s someone watching over you, steering you into the direction of future happiness. Travolta was uniquely fit to embody the manifestation of that hope. It’s a shame he’s had so few roles this good since.