Angel-A is one of the most gorgeous movies I have ever despised. Luc Besson’s black and white photography makes love to Paris, highlighting not just the beautiful architecture and geography of the city, but also the very soul of it. Angel-A does for Paris what Woody Allen’s Manhattan did for that city.
But all of this beauty is in service of a movie that is, in turns, stupid, boring, mildly morally odious and outrageously predictable. I have also never been so frustrated by a movie ignoring one of its actor’s physical impediments. That actor is Jamel Debbouze, the guy from Amelie who was missing part of his right arm. He hasn’t gotten any of it back since then, and he spends all of Angel-A with his half-empty jacket sleeve tucked into his pocket and he and everyone else ignores it. Now, I’m not saying every movie this guy makes needs to feature a scene where he explains what’s up with that arm of his, but his character in Angel-A is a petty scam artist and deadbeat whose big problem in life is his lack of self esteem. He hates himself and the way he looks… but he never mentions that arm. Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m just a shallow jerk, but I know if I had a very noticeable physical deformity I would be always hyper-aware of it, and it would certainly impact my self-esteem*.
I feel bad paying so much attention to the man’s arm when I could be talking about his performance, which usually borders on the buffoonish. His con artist is neck deep in debt and the guys who are going to collect are going to do so roughly. He gets up on a bridge, intending to do himself in before they can, when he sees a tall, gorgeous creature next to him. She’s in a party dress and smeared make-up and she jumps. He goes in after her, trying to rescue her. Oh yes, C'est une Vie Merveilleuse.
They run around together and she teaches him to love himself while he, predictably, falls in love with her. She, less realistically, falls for him. But it can never be, since she’s actually an angel, sent here by God to lure men into bathrooms and mug them (seriously. More on that in a minute) to help the con man pay off his debt. And so that he can get enough self esteem to get married and have kids and all sorts of other tedious shit.
Debbouze plays his character as such a pathetic clown that you don’t care if he dies; in fact you may harbor a wish that he would, just so the fucking movie would end sooner. And while Rie Rasmussen is so strikingly beautiful that she offers Paris its only competition for your eyeballs, she never brings the angel to life as anything more than a scrappy, spoiled model. Predictably, the angel can’t do all the good things in Heaven that we can do on Earth, like smoke, eat bad and mug dudes, so she engages in them heartily. Yes, this is essentially a riff on John Travolta in Michael, although frankly I’d much rather bump uglies with Rasmussen. Sadly, I think I have a better chance with Travolta.
So down to the mugging. Besides having a treacly script that drags itself through every obvious moment, Angel-A also engages in really dodgy theology. This is one of those movies where dead people become angels – this is a pet peeve of mine, as angels are beings separate from humans, created long before us and having their own unique properties and abilities. I know this is just like arguing what an elf can or can not do in a fantasy movie – and I’m not even remotely religious! – but this New Age version of angels is one that I find annoying. But there’s other theological and moral ground that the movie stomps on thoughtlessly: the angel tells the dipshit (The Angel and The Dipshit… now that’s a movie title) that she’ll help him get the money for his debts, and she proceeds to do this by going to a club and whoring herself out. Or so we think – we later learn she was luring men into the club’s toilets, beating them, and stealing their money. I honestly don’t know what’s more horrifying** – a prostituted angel or one who engages in felonious assault. It’s later shown that the angel knows the outcome of horse races and shit – while gambling may be morally shaky, it has to be better in the eyes of the Lord than battery and robbery.
Luc Besson is an unequivocally gifted filmmaker, but he should let someone else write his movies. Angel-A doesn’t have an original thought or moment, except for his bizarre handling of the angel’s problem solving skills. Just because you’re a storyteller doesn’t always mean you have a story worth telling; I would have loved to see Besson’s marvelous visuals married to a story that wasn’t so bad that it insulted me.
*I ran into this guy at the farmer’s market near The Grove in Los Angeles once. I thought I recognized him, but it wasn’t until I saw that stumpy arm that I knew for sure it was him. He was with two astonished hotties.
** In a feel-good angel movie, that is. In something like Preacher an angel prostituting itself would be great. For those of you interested in what happens when you try to fuck an angel, check out Genesis Chapter 19***. Remember that in the Bible ‘to know’ someone means ‘to give them a good rogering.’
*** Hint: a dude will try to make you fuck his daughters instead.