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Feathered Fooling

John Travolta
Urban Seraphim: In "Michael," wandering angel John Travolta proves that in heaven there is no line dancing.

Photo by Zade Rosenthal

Nora Ephron ladles the syrup on 'Michael'

By Richard von Busack

I MET A magician at a holiday party who told me about a review he'd read in which someone complained that Jurassic Park was manipulative; he said, "For $7.50, I damn well better be manipulated." While the dinosaurs didn't make me feel any strong emotions--except in the sense that I was rooting for them to devour the whole cast--I explained that what's generally meant by manipulation isn't being wound up by Jurassic Park.

Real manipulation comes from the awful, intimate tricks that make you feel like a chump. A good magician delights you; it's the sadistic ones who try to make you weep.

Michael works a really terrible trick. John Travolta, as the slightly molting Archangel Michael, stands, wings spread in a country field, resurrecting a dead terrier as several tons of Randy Newman's symphonic music cascades over his shoulders.

Travolta's unerring radar for bad scripts has served him once again; for every Saturday Night Fever, there's been a Staying Alive hot on its heels.

A trio of tabloid reporters go to Iowa to investigate the reports of the angel, who has made himself at home in a motel owned by Pansy (Jean Stapleton). He's an unprepossessing sight, with grubby wings shedding feathers, standing around in his shorts with his belly out, drinking a can of beer. "He doesn't suffer fools gladly," explains Pansy, and yet he sticks around for the rest of the picture, forcing the journalists to drive him to Chicago.

The reporters are the embittered Frank Quinlan (William Hurt), the much-divorced Dorothy (Andie MacDowell) and the portly comedy relief, Huey Driscoll (Robert Pastorelli). The angel's mission, of course, is to make Frank and Dorothy discover their love for each other despite their mutual antipathy.

The angel loves sugar; he wolfs down half a pound of it with every meal. "You can never get too much of it," he says. Oh, can't we? The sugar here is made to sweeten a void. Angel movies are perhaps my least-favorite genre, even above rape-revenge and stock car­racing pictures, but even by today's loose standards, Michael is slack and dull.

The way director Nora Ephron has constructed Michael, it's missing even the usual element of doubt that the angel is who he says he is. Michael is syrupy sludge posing as a family movie, made in awe of Frank Capra and The Wizard of Oz. It's hard to renew that particular innocence--or to mask that kind of calculation, take your pick--if your biggest achievement to date has been teaching a new generation how to fake an orgasm (the money scene in the Ephron-scripted When Harry Met Sally ...).

Ephron is a well-known wit (on the basis of several books of essays and Heartburn), and she wrote Michael with three other writers, one of them being Peter Dexter, who originated this project and who wrote Paris Trout. These people are not, I stress, naives--which could be the only excuse despite greed for hatching this abomination.

Michael represents perhaps the most disastrous outpouring of sweetness since the Great Molasses flood of Boston. If there really are angels that protect the arts, maybe Michael is pitched so low that it will fail.

Michael (PG; 110 min.), directed by Nora Ephron, written by Nora and Delia Ephron, Pete Dexter and Jim Quinlan, photographed by John Lindley and starring John Travolta.

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From the Dec. 26, 1996 to Jan. 1, 1997 issue of Metro

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