December 27, 1996 in Seven

Too-Cute ‘Michael’ Is Sort Of Like A Box Of Chocolates

Carrie Rickey Philadelphia Inquirer
 

Although Michael chain-smokes cigarettes and swills beer, everyone says he smells like cookies. You’re inclined to excuse him if he molts on your carpet because his mission - should you choose to accept it - is to restore cynics their hearts.

Our feathered friend is an arch archangel (or is it an earth angel?), the title character of the new movie “Michael.” As played by John Travolta in an almost perfect transition from his last screen role as a good ol’ boy struck by celestial lightning, you might call his new film “Phenomenon” with wings.

This slight comedy, which co-stars William Hurt and Andie MacDowell as skeptical tabloid reporters on the angel beat, strains even to be feather-light. But you’re inclined to excuse it because it would be grinchlike not to grin at a film that would have us believe that the secrets of happiness are sugar, song and smiles.

These are Michael’s passions, and he hopes to convert sour-ball scribe Frank Quinlan (Hurt) and his man-hater sidekick Dorothy Winters (MacDowell) to the sweet life. This requires a heavy diet of apple pie, country music and Americana, such as the world’s largest ball of twine. While not everyone has the stomach for it, those who do will be amply satisfied.

Based on a script by erstwhile Philadelphia Daily News writers Pete Dexter and Jim Quinlan and further feathered by Delia and Nora Ephron, “Michael” wavers in tone between hard-bitten and cream-centered.

Like her title character, Nora Ephron, who directed “Michael,” wants to subvert cynicism: She wants to convert it to optimism. A subversive would paint a moustache on the “Mona Lisa”; Ephron would like to paint smiles on the grim-faced subjects of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

Her film - much of which is set in Wood’s native Iowa - boasts the clean, rolling hills, the picket-fence rhythms, and the otherworldly light of one of the painter’s canvases. But given the unkempt habits of its title character, the movie looks simultaneously hygienic and grungy, rendering the film’s visual message as mixed as its comic tone.

With wings drooping to his ankles and a smile that arches to the heavens, Travolta pads through the film displaying his familiar moves. He brags (“I invented standing in line; before that everyone just milled around”). He boogies (to the tune of “Chain of Fools”). He even resurrects a doggie. But hasn’t this most genial of actors depleted his charm reservoir?

The surprise here is William Hurt, credible as the heartless tabloid reporter and just as believable as a guy who could be touched by an angel. Hurt plays Frank as a figure who actually has a conversion experience. Because of his acute performance, you are inclined to excuse this movie that suffers from a case of the cutes.

xxxx “Michael” Locations: Lincoln Heights, Newport and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Nora Ephron, starring John Travolta, William Hurt and Andie MacDowell Running time: 1:45 Rating: PG


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