Two years ago, writer-director Nora Ephron and her co-writer sister, Delia, brought us one of the most depressing holiday movies of all time, "Mixed Nuts." They somehow thought that a screwball comedy set at a suicide hotline center on Christmas Eve would be howlingly funny.
If I were told that I would have to sit through their latest collaboration, "Michael," again, I might need to call the hotline myself.
From what would seem to be a quirkily original premise (devised by Pete Dexter and Jim Quinlan, who share screenwriting credit with the Ephrons) has emerged an utterly predictable, one-joke road movie.
William Hurt and Robert Pastorelli ("Murphy Brown") play Chicago tabloid reporters Frank Quinlan and Huey Driscoll. Their gimmick is to travel the country and get photos with their dog, Sparky, supposedly interviewing celebrities.
Frank gets a letter from a faithful reader, Fanny Milbank (Jean Stapleton), who says that an angel lives with her in a small-town Iowa motel. She encloses a convincing picture.
The reporters' boss, Varian Malt (Bob Hoskins), gleefully sends them off for what he hopes will be a boffo holiday cover story. Malt saddles the reporters with a new employee, Dorothy Winters (Andie MacDowell), a thrice-married would-be country songwriter, who is supposedly an "angel expert."
The reporters soon find that the letter is no hoax. Living with Fanny is the Archangel Michael (John Travolta), who is between battles at the moment. Michael certainly does not meet anyone's expectations for an angel, but he does agree to accompany the reporters back to Chicago.
Thus begins a needlessly long road trip - both in movie time and real time. What would be a drive of a few hours takes a few days - and a 15-minute sketch is drawn out into a 1 hour and 45-minute marathon.
The "story" mainly consists of a series of see-the-angel vignettes - see the angel smoke, drink, eat like a slob, snore, sing Beatles tunes and seduce barmaids. You never thought angels did things like that, so it must be funny.
Apparently, Michael's only mission is to get Frank and Dorothy together in a fleabag motel in the middle of nowhere. Yeah, right. People never think of sex on their own these days?
When you think "Michael" can't get any worse, there is a breathtaking scene an hour and a half into this movie that must be seen to be believed. Let's just say it's the worst use of a canine in a movie since "Pet Sematary."
The very charismatic Travolta and Hurt do their best, and the film's problems are not their fault. But MacDowell does not have nearly the wacky spark her character demands, and she and Hurt have no chemistry together.
The movie suffers from a schizophrenic tone. Nora Ephron's direction is tony, but the jokes consistently aim much lower. There might be a good movie in a lowbrow dig at orthodox notions of angels, or a feel-good fable about an encounter with one, but "Michael" is neither.
This is the kind of condescending tripe that feather-headed Hollywood elites think we yokels out here in fly-over country will find inspiring: "People are interested in angels, and they like John Travolta, so let's put this out for Christmas."