As 'Michael,' John Travolta is slouchy, sexy and oh-so-cool. But he's not the center of the movie.

EARTHY ANGEL

December 25, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

One look at John Travolta's funky hipster angel in "Michael" and you may indeed come to believe that it's a wonderful life -- if not permanently, at least for the amount of time you share with Travolta.

The conceit is delicious. Think of Leon Redbone or Tom Waits or Dexter Gordon or maybe the tubby, slovenly late-middle-aged Jack Kerouac hung with a set of wings that could guide a !B Tomcat onto a carrier deck. Think of a gravely voice, sleepy eyes, a spray of whiskers from an injudiciously applied razor. Think of a belly that bounces; think of an absence of vanity so gigantic it seems heavenly. Think of a guy who puts too much Frosted Flakes on the spoon so they dribble shamelessly down across that expanse of avoirdupois that turns his navel into a coin slot. Think of a way of moving that can be described by no other word than "cool" as it was meant in the '50s.

That's Travolta's Michael, who, like Capra's equally unexpected Clarence of 1946, defies all the treacly expectations of heavenly messengers and, instead, offers an off-center, highly original take. As he says over and over, when others note that his `D tendency toward smoking, drinking, eating, womanizing and bar-brawling tends to deviate from the norm: "I'm not that kind of angel."

Yet as totally amusing -- and frequently hilarious -- as Travolta's angel-dude is, the surprise is, he's not really the center of the movie. That part is conceded to William Hurt, absent for many years from the centers of movies, and if this isn't the comeback role of the '90s, I don't know what it is.

Hurt plays cynical tabloid reporter Frank Quinlan, who is sent to Iowa with two colleagues and a real newsroom star -- the incompetent Huey Driscoll (Robert Pastorelli), the mysterious Dorothy Winters (Andie MacDowell) and the star (a dog) -- to exploit a ditzy rural motel owner (the wonderful Jean Stapleton), who claims she has an angel living upstairs. No, a real angel. You know, wings, everything.

At that point, Travolta slouches down the stairs and into the movie, looking like he hasn't showered since that gig in a bar in Jericho in 845 B.C., and hungry for his Frosted Flakes.

Hurt is fabulous in a quieter way than Travolta. He's a familiar figure in modern American narrative, the fallen prince, hiding his bitterness behind a bright patter of cynicism and irony, twinkling with riffs that keep his empty canteen of a heart from rattling much. But he's also in yearning -- a career breakthrough, a romantic breakthrough, a release from the demons. Whatever, he has trouble facing himself in the mirror. But his cynicism plays magically off Travolta's conviction, particularly as they share the road back.

So it turns out that "Michael" is really a road picture. Stapleton leaves the picture and this odd little quartet -- plus dog -- heads off across a bleak early-winter Iowa (I love the visual banality; it's the sign of a director who knows characters are more important than camera angles) toward Chicago, where photos will be taken and Michael turned into a world star. Meanwhile, the three wingless, dreamless humans squabble and paw among themselves, opening veins of feeling they never thought existed, while Michael enjoys -- or subtly manipulates -- from the back seat.

The movie's signature sequence follows Michael in a rural road house, drawing all the women in the place into his mesmerizing web. Of course Travolta danced his way to a major career in "Saturday Night Fever," and he's always had a dynamic, seductive way of moving. The director, Nora Ephron, understands this as well as anyone he's worked with since Quentin Tarantino in "Pulp Fiction," where he twisted his way back into the big time with Uma Thurman.

But neither of those astonishing gyrations predicted the brilliance of his little sequence in "Michael," where he seems to be radiating sexual power through the crouched, minimalist, yet beat-driven pulsings of his body, and the movie really captures the way in which he draws these women to him. He may represent God on Earth, but he's got the devil in those swiveling hips.

'Michael'

Starring John Travolta, William Hurt and Andie MacDowell

Directed by Nora Ephron

Released by New Line

Rated PG-13 (sexual innuendo)

*** 1/2

Pub Date: 12/25/96

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