In a comeback that I've been anticipating only slightly more than the reemergence of JNCO jeans or polio, Luc Besson now returns to American theaters after a nearly decade-long absence. The occasion is the release of "Angel-A," a Paris-set variation on "It's a Wonderful Life," which replaces Clarence (dowdy old character actor Henry Travers) with an improbably gorgeous girl who - this being a Luc Besson movie - can kick ass with impunity.
Andre (played by popular comic actor Jamel Debbouze, most familiar to Americans from "Amelie") is a globetrotting hustler who's found himself at loose ends. A life of borrowing and welshing is closing in on him; he's penniless, and the underworld types he's indebted to are now preparing, in unison, to test out the "blood from a stone" adage on him. Melodramatically despairing, he prepares to fling himself into the Seine, only to spy a statuesque fellow jumper, Angela (Rie Rasmussen, quite memorable as The Legs from Brian De Palma's "Femme Fatale"), just ahead of him in line.
Forgetting his plans momentarily, Andre winds up dragging her out of the drink, and right off she proves herself no wilting distressed damsel - in fact, she's in-control enough to take good care of herself and her rescuer, straightaway starting his life on extreme makeover, settling his accounts and bolstering his self-esteem in the way that being seen with a perfect female specimen tends to do. All told, it's a variation on that unusually popular contemporary fable in which a febrile, helpless failure finds his salvation through the love of a good woman - who in this case happens to be sent from Above (life experience suggests these fix-up-job relationships aren't the ideal formula for Happily Ever After, but then actual human emotions don't have much relationship to this film). Despite the nod to Capra, "Angel-A" never explores the depths of abjection that justified his sophisticated sentimentality: when Andre is getting ready to jump, there's never any sense that he's at risk of something worse than a pratfall, and the dangers he's escaping from are simplistic comic-book thugs - one only needs to turn the page to make them disappear.
The film's unsuppressed eccentricity does allow for a few nips of pleasure through the lopsided pairing of Rasmussen and Debbouze - in heels, she's at least a head taller than him - which inherently achieves the fairy tale whimsy strained for elsewhere. But by any measure, it's a wreck of a movie. Spending most of its runtime on the razor's edge of incoherence, it bobbles every decisive scene that it tries to build (excepting maybe one crucial pep talk that Debbouze delivers into a bathroom mirror, which the actor's tremendous likeability halfway sells), uses its Parisian backdrop in the most unimaginative "triptych" fashion possible ("Do we have time to 'do' Sacre-Coeur before lunch?"), and stymies any chance for the considerable charms of the leads to take effect by glomming them up with mouthfuls-upon-mouthfuls of literal-minded soul-searching dialogue.
Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.