There’s something fundamentally creepy and slightly sad about Hollywood’s obsession with angels meddling in human affairs – whether it’s Clarence showing George Bailey the dark timeline where his wife becomes a spinster librarian with glasses in It’s a Wonderful Life, angels fixing baseball games in Angels in the Outfield (and its two sequels), or John Travolta resurrecting a dog in Nora Ephron’s Michael.
A box office hit on Christmas Day 1996, Michael (not to be confused with the Austrian paedophile movie of the same name) finds two Chicago tabloid journalists (William Hurt and Robert Pastorelli) and a fraudulent angel expert (Andie MacDowell) following a lead about an angel living in rural Iowa. Imagine their surprise (or strange lack thereof) when they meet Michael (Travolta), a chain-smoking, Beatles-loving, womanising angel making his last visit to Earth and looking to party. Why Iowa? Why not Vegas? Or Liverpool? Or Blackpool? Well, because he loves giant roadside attractions, gluh.
Michael is a road movie seemingly comprised of deleted scenes, ie. inconsequential visits to the world’s biggest ball of twine and the world’s largest non-stick frying pan. How tiny is this film’s idea of heaven that an angel would be awed by large things? Each pointless scene and hapless detail (eg. Michael invented queuing) confirms that there is no story here, only a kooky ’90s premise. Wouldn’t it be funny if an angel smoked? Apparently not. But apparently angels are jealous of earthly delights like bar fights and motel sex.
This seems a patronising view of Midwestern America, their idiotic tastes secretly shared by the angels. An entire scene is devoted to pie, which does give us the film’s sole redeeming moment (and no it’s not the bit where Travolta headbutts a bull) – when Andie MacDowell sings a delightful song about pie. Weird nonsense is very much the order of the day, including a misogynistic gag about women salivating over Michael because he smells of cookies.
It turns out Michael’s purpose for being in Iowa is to unite two Chicagoans (Hurt and MacDowell), because angels have nothing better to do than play matchmaker for people living prosperous independent lives. Much is made of her multiple divorces (another hilarious Christmas cracker) but surely that means getting married is the last thing she needs. It’s not even like they have to get married by virtue of being the leads in a romcom, because they’re not – that would be Michael, the star and title of the film, who ultimately needs something to do that doesn’t make him crane his neck.
For a film in which John Travolta eats cereal wearing dungarees and a giant pair of wings, Michael is surprisingly forgettable festive fodder, whose nonsensical narrative resembles the name of an ABC Family movie called Christmas Cupid (2010) – so at least this mawkish mainstream ’90s entertainment has been relegated to cable (or Netflix, in Michael‘s case). They don’t even show us the big non-stick frying pan, by the way.