The Family Man offers but a slight variation on the threadbare holiday theme of what life might have been like had Our Hero followed a different path -- or never been born. Not only is it a redo of It's a Wonderful Life -- complete with an angel (played by a dreadlocked Don Cheadle, slumming it in this big-screen sitcom) who offers a narcissistic yuppie (Nicolas Cage) a brief look at an alternate life -- but it's also a thinly veiled remake of 1990's Mr. Destiny, with Cage stepping into a role once held by Jim Belushi. It's a plot more worn out than the tinsel boxed up in the attic, the give-up of the lazy writer who rapes and pillages dusty themes of resurrection and salvation. What was once inspirational has become inevitable; what was once meaningful now reeks of the mundane.
The Family Man is one of two films to be released this month that deal with the transformation of the Self-Absorbed Successful Executive into Sensitive Touchy-Feely Man -- from cold and barren to warm and caring in a matter of 120 minutes. Both it and What Women Want feel like stale, smug homages to Regarding Henry or, given the holiday season, Richard Donner's 1988 A Christmas Carol update Scrooged, which at least had Bill Murray going for it. They present the careerist as a manipulative and unfeeling sumbitch, until his life is upended in fairy-tale sequences that make Frank Capra's fantasy seem as though it were directed by Leni Riefenstahl. They're given every chance to atone for their arrogance and avarice, and in the end, they're nicer guys for it -- real sweethearts.
In this case, Jack Campbell (Cage) is allowed to find out what his life might have been like had he not gotten on a plane to London in 1987, leaving behind his girlfriend Kate (Téa Leoni) and their dreams of a blissful future. "I have a really bad feeling about this," Kate tells Jack at the airport. "In my heart, it feels wrong." But he must chase his dreams of being a stockbroker, so he ditches her with the promise of returning to her in a year. "It'll be like I never left," he lies, giving her the look of a man at once sad and self-absorbed; he knows he will never return to their life together.
Cut to 13 years later: Jack's now the president of a Wall Street firm in the middle of negotiating a billion-dollar deal; Kate is but a distant memory, the ex who phones once every decade. Jack is stoned on success, singing and dancing along to Verdi while perusing a closet filled with thousand-dollar suits; he also has his pick of stunning girlfriends, any one of whom is bound to show up at his door clad only in fur coat and silk undies. It is, of course, Christmas Day, and Jack has ordered his employees to ditch their families for their would-be fortunes. By way of a compliment, the CEO tells him he's "a credit to capitalism."
Cage plays Jack with just a little sadness beneath the arrogance; he feels as though something is missing, despite his insistence he has everything a man could ever want. He's proved right by a stick-up man named, of course, Cash (Cheadle), who turns out to be his Clarence, offering the complacent, greedy Jack a "glimpse" of a different, and no doubt better, life -- this one in New Jersey, where he lives with wife Kate and their two children, wears boxers instead of black briefs, works at his father-in-law's tire shop, and flirts with a next-door neighbor. (In this "reality," Jack did indeed go to Europe, only to return immediately.) Jack finds none of his old friends and colleagues know who he is -- you half expect him to shout, "Mary, Mary, don't you recognize me?" -- and he couldn't be more appalled by his "new" life. As Cage works up the requisite outrage at his predicament, his swagger turns to disgust and fear, and his eyes bulge out like a Tex Avery creation. That's when the actor transcends the obviousness of the material: Nobody transitions from confident to confused better than he does. Too bad, then, he ultimately softens into a puddle of melted snow.
The Family Man exists in a world in which no one's ever seen It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol. The movie's like the idiot who mutters a cliché and thinks it's for the very first time; it thinks it's clever and profound, even though we're so far ahead of the tale we've been in our cars and on the freeway 38 minutes before the final credits roll. Worse, director Brett Ratner and screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman want it both ways: They want the fairy tale and the reality, and they've concocted such an unsatisfying, almost offensive ending they dispel any hint of romantic fantasy that keeps the film moving during its grinning, often winning scenes of domestic bliss. In the end, they've given us a Christmas gift barely worth returning.
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