Anyone who’s seen Arthur and the Invisibles can tell you that Luc Besson’s cinematic track record hasn’t been a completely sterling one. But you can’t fault the guy’s energy and insistence in wanting to try something new with his projects all the time. Angel-A is the latest (and rumored to be last) feature from the busy French filmmaker, and although it never quite takes off thematically, the film at least looks great enough and sits viewers down to a fairly brisk, 90-minute gaze into its odd little universe.
André (Jamel Debbouze) is a small-time con with a big mouth. His habitual fibbing and borrowing from various shady loan sharks has him up to his ears in debt, threatened by seemingly every gangster in Paris. Hoping to be the master of his own destiny, André decides to end his life by jumping off a bridge. But just as he’s about to take the plunge, he spots Angela (Rie Rasmussen), a blonde, statuesque beauty, who jumps in first, with André postponing his own suicide to save this mystery woman’s life. As our beleagured protagonist soon finds out, Angela has no intentions of leaving his side or letting him try for another go at ending his life. She’s made it her mission to help André get his act together, accompanying him to all those he owes and miraculously getting him out of one sticky situation after another. However, as their time together progresses, André gets the sneaking suspicion that Angela is no ordinary girl, that perhaps a higher power is responsible for sending some help to get his life in order.
I’m always intrigued to see what happens when a director who’s been known to throw him or herself into high-profile projects decides to take a breather and try their hand at something low-key. Angel-A is about as far removed from the special effects smogasbord of The Fifth Element or the ambitious fantasy world of Arthur and the Invisibles as you can get, settling down to focus more on characters than the bells and whistles. But alas, the results aren’t too far off from what happened when Wes Craven did Music of the Heart; sure, it’s a perfectly serviceable drama, but one leaves the film wondering what the big deal was. The main problem with Angel-A is that Besson is reaching for the stars when his story would have been best had it remained down to earth. He begins the film on a terrific note, setting the stage for a quirky dramedy in a style not unlike that of Woody Allen. The black-and-white photography is absolutely gorgeous, and even though it doesn’t seem to serve any thematic or artistic purpose, you eventually can’t imagine the film looking as good in color.
But as Angel-A progresses, Besson has a tendency to lose sight of his simple goals, shedding a little bit of his picture’s strange magic by overcomplicating the plot to an almost astounding degree. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the direction Besson goes with André’s world turns out to be something that could’ve been just as easily accomplished through a 15-minute meeting with Dr. Phil, let alone having qualified as a situation that required the Almighty’s immediate attention. Debbouze (last seen as a conflicted soldier in the great Days of Glory) is a sympathetic enough goofball, faring well as an all-around nice guy who needs to get his priorities straight. Rasmussen also brings the right amount of charisma and spunk to the character of Angela, who serves to simultaneously nag André about changing his ways and pretty much beating the stuffing out of anyone who threatens him. The pair shares a good amount of chemistry, but it’s when Besson tries to thrust the relationship into much stranger and deeper territory that the fun generated from their discussions takes a back seat to clunky plot mechanics that slows the film as a whole down to a crawl.
I can’t bring myself to fully recommend Angel-A, but it’s still one of those films that I personally sort of want people to see just so I can hear their reactions. Stylistically, Angel-A is top-notch stuff, but where themes are concerned, it pretty much boils down to being It’s a Wonderful Life in drag.