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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Angel Travolta Shakes His Belly To Save Hack in the Heartland

Where is Lucifer when you need him?

In a popular culture not exactly renowned for its lack of insipidity, the current rage for angels sweeping the United States achieves new heights of silliness. Here we find an ancient concept -- far older than the Christianity that now claims it as its own -- degraded to a gift-calendar cuteness, which might be just tolerable as trifling kitsch were it not promoted with such solemnity, even by the mainstream media and all others with an eye out for the easy buck.

Thus, the dread operations of fate and, if you like, divinity, are reduced to the grinning intervention of upbeat hosts in J. Crew sweaters or Victorian garb, who step in to keep the coffee from burning or make it rain when your begonias look droopy. And the public seems to have happily surrendered judgment and embraced the unnourishing notions offered them as the best they are likely to get.

This may in part account for the popularity of "Michael," the 1996 film opening Monday at the American House of Cinema, which trades on the trendy angel theme and repays the viewer thus ensnared with soporific tedium. The rest of the popularity is accounted for by the presence of John Travolta, who plays the archangel Michael in this turgid little Christmas tale designed to warm the well-primed cockles of the popular heart.

Well, as Woody Allen used to say, there's nothing like hot cockles, but except for a few winning moments from Travolta, "Michael" is one cold, low-grade, high-concept fish.

Here's the pitch: Travolta is an angel who loves the pleasures of human life so much he keeps hanging around the earth, and is presently domiciled, for no particular reason, in a seedy heartland motel. The motel's owner sends word of the angelic presence to a tabloid writer, Frank Quinlan (William Hurt), a former journalistic light come down in the world. His boss, Varton Malt (Bob Hoskins), tired of Quinlan's tepid offerings, dispatches him to bring the angel back to Chicago, on pain of sacking. Quinlan is accompanied by his sidekick, Huey (Robert Pastorelli), and a dog trainer whom Malt mistakes for an "angel expert," Dorothy Winters (Andie MacDowell). There is also a cute little dog named Sparky in the mix.

Will Frank recover his fallen self-esteem and find that he can love again, perhaps with the sweetly contentious, much-divorced Dorothy? Will Huey save Sparky from the evil clutches of Malt? Will Travolta at some point shimmy across the dance floor in a star turn recalling past glories from "Saturday Night Fever" and "Pulp Fiction"? Try real hard and see if you can guess.

The twist in this otherwise paint-by-numbers plot is that Michael is not the usual sort of angel. He has a beer belly (and it was brave of Travolta to subject his much-celebrated physique to the bloating required for the part); he gobbles cereal to get a sugar rush; he likes to dance, drink beer and, not to put too fine a point on it, supply the ladies with heavenly joy.

It is, in fact, a somewhat interesting concept that gets lost completely in director Nora Ephron's scaredy-cat playing to the comfy-cozy doctrines of the lucrative angel industry. She pulls the focus away from Michael and turns it instead on the entirely pointless, completely predictable "redemption" of the querulous Quinlan by angelic intervention. The fact that a fine actor like Hurt and a decent actress like MacDowell are given bland, scarcely legible characters to play compounds Ephron's fatal error.

Hollywood's moguls are said to be in a dither these days over the near-total wipe-out they suffered in the recent Oscar nominations, which went largely to a clutch of independent films that took as their subject matter the non-trendy complexities and curiosities of our human existence. These are films in which the dark star, Lucifer -- who was cast out of heaven by, who else, Michael and his hosts -- makes his appearance as that intractable element in life which often combats our happiness and perplexes our understanding. A little bit of that presence to leaven their yeasty concoctions might bring the moguls more of those honors they now wail for.

"Michael" opens Monday at the American House of Cinema. See listings for show times.