Every once in a while, there’s a movie coming out that is generally considered self-indulgent, sappy and misguided, but I end up loving it anyway. Am I such a sucker for romantic fantasy (which is generally the genre concerned here) or is it the other critics who are wrong? I’ve written about dozens of such films and I still don’t know that I can quite explain my response to them. The best rationalization of this I’ve seen was by Time critic Richard Corliss, who recently wrote that “movie critics can’t agree on much, but there’s one assumption most of them hold deeply without ever discussing it. It’s that a film that says life is crap is automatically deeper, better, richer, truer than one that says life can be beautiful. (…) But to serious critics then, and to the mass audience now, sentiment is suspect. Feeling is mushy, girly — for fools. To be soft-hearted is to be soft-headed. (…) A movie that tries to make them feel is somehow pandering to their basest or noblest emotions and, as they see it, deserves a spanking from any smart reviewer.”
Which brings us to the latest directorial effort of Luc Besson, which was loathed by all but a few critics when it was released in France last year. They said that it was “mièvre”, not very subtle, “niais”, incoherent, “con”, pretentious, “bancal”… I agree to a degree with these assessments. Besson is certainly not the best writer in the world, his dialogue is often poor and his sense of humor is uneven at best. Also, lately he seems to be telling over and over the same “Beauty and the Beast”-style story about a broken soul (a hit-man, Jet Li as a dog, Bruce Willis) who learns to express his feelings at the contact of a too good to be true woman (respectively an orphaned teen, a blind pianist’s stepdaughter, the fifth element is love!).
In “Angel-A”, the emotionally stunted protagonist is André (Jamel Debbouze), a lowlife hustler who claims to be an American citizen who does business in Argentina, even though he looks Algerian and sounds French. In any case, when we meet him he’s in Paris and he’s in deep trouble. He owes money all over town to various shady characters and, well, it doesn’t look like he’s gonna be able to pay all his debts before someone tires of waiting to get paid and kills him. That precarious situation, plus his general long burning self-loathing, lead him to climb over the railing of a bridge one Sunday morning, decided to end it all… But before he can proceed, he’s interrupted by another suicidal person who takes the jump first! Instinctually, he jumps as well, grabs her and swims to the riverbank. He’s saved her life but soon enough, he’ll realize that it’s her who’s come to save him.
The rescued jumper turns out to be Angela (Rie Rasmussen), a tall blonde with a scrumptious Scandinavian accent and the longest legs in the world. André initially finds her to be an annoying, if attractive, distraction, but he reluctantly takes her on as a partner in his desperate quest to score enough dough to reimburse his debts. The banter between the two is amusing enough, but the visual juxtaposition of the towering Rasmussen and the diminutive Debbouze might be even funnier. For the first half of “Angel-A”, I was liking it as an odd-couple comedy made even more enjoyable by the gorgeous black & white cinematography, which gives us the most arresting images of Paris since the Nouvelle Vague. But what really got me was when it revealed itself to be, quite literally, It’s a Wonderful Life with a “pétasse”!
What follows is an increasingly incredible, shamelessly romantic fable in which the mysterious babe helps the longtime loser learn to not only accept but love himself, which allows him to be more confident and to love others. Corny? If you say so. All I know is that during the film’s emotional climax, a long close-up of Jamel Debbouze (who shows unexpected dramatic chops), I was crying with him. Just as I cried with Paul Giamatti during his own climactic moment of clarity in Lady in the Water, another much-maligned picture which shares more than a few thematic elements with “Angel-A”. While we’re at it, I was similarly moved by the also widely underrated Elizabethtown which, what do you know, again deals with a dude who’s given up on life and who meets a girl who acts as his guardian angel. Luc Besson, while a gifted director, is nowhere near as good a writer as Shyamalan or Crowe, so his film maudit didn’t work for me as much as theirs. Still, I’m convinced that in all three cases, if you give these obviously heartfelt pictures a chance and don’t hold their sentimentality against them, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.