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Angel-A: France's Clarence

Luc Besson explores his inner Capra

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If you've ever wondered how a Frenchman would remake It's a Wonderful Life, Luc Besson's Angel-A answers the question.

Granted, Moroccan-American hustler Andre (Jamel Debbouze) bears little resemblance to James Stewart's all-American family man. Still, both have money problems that lead them to contemplate suicide by jumping off a bridge, and both change their minds when an angel in disguise takes the plunge first. Instead of jolly, pudgy Clarence, Andre's guardian angel turns out to be a chain-smoking femme fatale (Denmark's Rie Rasmussen) with short blond hair, a shorter black dress and legs the approximate height of the Eiffel Tower.

Angel-A marks a return to earth for Luc Besson, who has directed and written his first film since 1999's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. In the meantime he's been practically "Americanizing" the French film industry, specializing in countless action flicks such as La Femme Nikita and District B13 as a producer and writer. For Angel-A, Besson puts aside his fondness for fiery explosions to dabble in a different Hollywood formula, the feel-good celestial romance.

Like a typical rom-com, Andre and seemingly suicidal "Angela" first become a bickering, mismatched couple. After he pulls her out of the Seine, Andre berates her for choosing to jump off "his" bridge: "Didn't you see it was taken?" Having been saved, Angela offers to put her life in his hands and do anything he says, but she quickly takes charge and confronts his debt problems with nasty loan sharks.

Despite his claims to have an olive oil business, Andre merely comes across as a fast-talking, utterly unconvincing scam artist. As a Moroccan with U.S. citizenship, he takes the brunt of post-9/11 Euro abuse for being both an Arab and an American. Andre may be a pathetic scrounger, but Debbouze's soulful, sensitive eyes convey an innate decency, and he proved similarly sympathetic in Indigenes. He makes an ideal cinematic sad sack, as if influenced by both Lou Costello and compact French character actor Dominique Pinon.

Angela's divine mission means more than simply punching out bullies and raising money for Andre's debts, but to build up his self-esteem and renew his appreciation of life. Angela instructs Andre not to tell lies, especially to himself, and delivers other messages that would have fit right in on a PAX channel TV movie.

It's impossible to square her peaceable lessons with the film's winking vision of the criminal world's sex industry and strong-arm tactics. Angela's advice to confront the gangsters would merely get him killed. Likewise, Angela's lusty appetites for food, expensive wine and cigarettes have few consequences; Rasmussen's supermodel proportions suggest a drastically different dietary regimen. It's like Besson's head is so far up in the clouds that Angel-A makes no sense in the real world.

Throughout the film, Besson emphasizes Debbouze's physical contrast with Rasmussen. Walking side by side on sidewalks or across bridges, they're a study in opposites: tall vs. short, pale vs. dark, female vs. male, confident vs. insecure. Despite – or maybe because of – Angela's status as an almost laughably sexy fantasy figure, Rasmussen and Debbouze make a highly appealing pair. Both actors bring enough emotional transparency to pull off scenes of surprising sentimentality, such as when Angela teaches Andre to look in a mirror and say, "I love you." Rasmussen's acting always comes across as relaxed and spontaneous.

The less you think about Angel-A's joie de vivre message, the more you'll enjoy it, with the film following Ratatouille, Avenue Montaigne and Paris, je t'aime as a love letter to Paris. Most films use warm colors to shoot the architecture of the City of Lights in a honeyed glow, but Besson, despite his fondness for hyper-real hues in films like The Fifth Element, photographs Angel-A in a sleek, polished-looking black-and-white.

Maybe Besson took inspiration not from It's a Wonderful Life but Wings of Desire, and wanted to do a sexed-up, ass-kicking version of Wim Wenders' similarly monochromatic, angelic-themed film. Angel-A could just as easily be titled Gams of Desire.

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