The comparisons with Frank Capra’s perennial classic are inevitable. Yes, Virginia, The Family Man shares much of the Yuletide spirit with It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s a man who’s shown an alternate version of his life by a mysterious stranger, there’s a cute daughter with a speech impediment, there’s the angelic tinkling of a bell and there’s always an out-of-nowhere snowfall when you need it.
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But The Family Man is not a remake of the 1946 movie (which is as sweet and hardy as a 54-year-old holiday fruitcake). And I’m as happy as the Dickens for that! Anyone touches It’s a Wonderful Life and I’m all over ’em like tinsel on a tree. Sure, it’s pure Capra-corn and the ending has got enough sap to supply an entire forest in Vermont, but gosh darn it, it’s really a wonderful movie. I was so relieved to find that The Family Man was a homage, not a rip-off re-telling.
The new millennial version of the George Bailey-Ebenezer Scrooge tale is a cautionary fable for those who hold to the succeed-at-all-costs Plan of Life. Where It’s a Wonderful Life showed George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) seeing what a bleak place the world would be if he’d never been born, The Family Man’s Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) discovers how content he would have been if he hadn’t pursued the Almighty Dollar. The message from both movies is “be happy with the simple things in life.” Home, family and the pleasures of small towns never looked so good.
As The Family Man opens, it’s 1987 and Jack is about to get on a plane for London where he’ll intern at a banking firm. He leaves behind his damp-eyed girlfriend Kate (Tea Leoni), promising he’ll return in a year and they can start their life together then.
Flash-forward 13 years. Jack is now the president of a Wall Street investment firm and Kate is nowhere in sight. He's obviously taken Robert Frost's "road less traveled." Jack’s the kind of self-centered, shark-eyed fellow who sleeps with disposable women, drives Ferraris and prances around his upscale co-op apartment in bikini underwear while singing Rigoletto. You just know he’s about to take a fall.
Jack’s firm is negotiating a multi-billion dollar merger on Christmas Eve and because he’s just Scroogian enough to make his team come to work the next day in order to seal the deal, his boss (Josef Sommer) toasts him as “a credit to capitalism.”
That night, Jack decides to walk home. Stopping for eggnog in a convenience store, he has an edgy encounter with a mysterious character named—no, not Clarence—Cash (Don Cheadle). After a hackneyed exchanged of dialogue about fate and choices, Cash says, “What do you need, Jack?”
The high-powered Jack looks down his imposing nose and laughs, “I’ve got everything I need.”
Cash nods with a twinkle in his eye. “Okay. Just remember you brought this upon yourself.”
Cue the falling snow.
Jack goes to sleep that night in his bachelor pad and wakes up the next morning in a New Jersey suburban home with Kate by his side, two young kids, a slobbering dog and a minivan parked out in the driveway. This is the point where the Talking Heads sing
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife
in the previews. Just as Clarence the Angel shows George Bailey “a chance to see what the world would be like without him,” Jack is being offered “a glimpse” into what might have been if he hadn’t gone to London for that year-long internship. It’s a messy life and, as Jack goes from Wall Street to Main Street, he has a hard time adjusting to what looks like the disappointing way his life has turned out. Sure, he’s got a beautiful, loving wife, but he’s also trapped in a humdrum suburban routine selling tires down at Big Ed’s. Worse, he’s got bowling trophies and a closet full of flannel shirts.
To him, this glimpse is a long string of bad choices; Kate, on the other hand, sees their 13-year marriage as “a great success story.”
Director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) does an adequate job of telling an earnest story, but the movie is really carried by its two leads. The Family Man gives Cage a chance to break free of the lobotomized work he’d been doing since copping the Leaving Las Vegas Oscar four years ago. His features are tailor-made for the wild-eyed disbelief the role calls for; and when the script demands “romantically sincere,” he delivers with Casanova intensity.
He’s got a good equal in Leoni, an actress who proves she’s better than the ditzy tabloid journalist she played on TV’s The Naked Truth. Two years ago, her surprisingly dramatic turn in Deep Impact was the best part of that asteroid movie. In The Family Man, she slips effortlessly into the role of a wife and mother who is still sweet and sexy after 13 years of marriage. She makes the family something worth having, both for Jack and the audience.
Like the “What if?” movies Sliding Doors and Me Myself I, The Family Man taps into those question all of our brains constantly turn over: “What if I’d taken the road less traveled? Would I be a better person, a happier person or just a different person?” The Family Man is serious about pursuing the answers to these questions (and sometimes it’s a bit too sober and somber). By the end of the movie, you’ll probably find yourself in a contemplative mood, rather than the sparkling feel-good brought on by It’s a Wonderful Life. But The Family Man, gorgeously photographed by Dante Spinotti and nicely scored by Danny Elfman, is an effective holiday film which might just have the endurance of a fruitcake.
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