Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Better Life: Brett Ratner's The Family Man (2000)

Nicolas Cage and Don Cheadle in The Family Man
Every holiday season, people love to put forth their favourite Christmas movies. Some suggest the redemption melodrama, A Christmas Carol (1951), but I prefer the irreverent comic edge of Richard Donner's Scrooged (1988). Many point to Frank Capra's perennial sentimental staple, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but I've never bought the idea of it being heart-warming. It's a Wonderful Life has always been a film noir in denial. James Stewart plays a decent man driven to suicidal despair by the demands made on him by the small town he lives in. But rather than examine his compulsive need to do for others (rather than satisfy his own needs and desires), the movie has us believe that because of the love of the townsfolk, Stewart gets redeemed rather than trapped by the town and his own neurosis. Brett Ratner's The Family Man, which draws on aspects of both A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, works better. Like those movies, this one also asks: What would you do if you had a second chance? The difference is that Ratner and screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman don't turn the story into a simple scenario that presents one kind of life as preferable to the other. The redemption their hero earns is discovering that what he's lost truly makes his life satisfying.

Nicolas Cage plays corporate lawyer Jack Campbell, who thirteen years earlier took off for an internship in London while leaving his girl, Kate (Tea Leoni), behind. He promised her at the airport that he'd return to carry on their love affair, but he ended up staying on. In the interim years, Jack returned to America but he becomes a high-powered, wealthy attorney, the toast of Wall Street and a popular bachelor. Kate has become a mere whim in his memory. While coming home from work one late evening on Christmas Eve, Jack stops in a convenience store and confronts Cash (Don Cheadle), an angel posing as a wired street punk hassling the clerks over a lottery ticket. When Jack peacefully settles the issue, Cash asks him if he has everything he wants in life. Jack tells him that he is perfectly content and goes off home to bed. The next morning, however, thanks to Cash, Jack finds himself with a different idea of contentment. He's now living a new life in a suburb of New Jersey. And he's in bed next to Kate on Christmas morning, with their two kids eager to open their presents, rather than alone in his penthouse suite. The Family Man is about how, despite his initial horror and misgivings, Jack Campbell discovers that life with Kate is more fulfilling than the life he led as an unattached corporate attorney.

Tea Leoni in The Family Man

Nicolas Cage doesn't always work convincingly in conventional romantic comedies unless his quirky side is in evidence (as it was, say, in Moonstruck), but he meshes those quirks beautifully into his characterization here. Cage is not only convincing as a blueblood who conquers women with the same ease that he conquers Wall Street, he is also oddly funny living in befuddlement in New Jersey selling tires for a living. It helps considerably that it's Tea Leoni playing Kate. She shares some of Cage's quirkiness along with the sexual ease of a woman who is content within herself to be constantly tickled by life's curves. Leoni plays Kate as a woman who has found a simple means to personal fulfillment and for whom a suburban family hardly diminishes her hunger for pleasure (as it did Annette Bening in American Beauty). Her comic timing is a quiet motor purring through the picture and Leoni gives Kate a libidinous grin that leaves Cage often slackjawed in response. Her sexual appetite actually adds to the comedy because it has a way of feeding Jack's bewilderment towards his circumstances. As much as he wants his old life back, he can't help questioning his decision to leave her behind. There's a sharp pang in Cage's delivery, for instance, in a scene when he looks at Kate and tells her how beautiful she is.

The Family Man can't rise above certain flaws in the storytelling. Don Cheadle doesn't get to do much with his rather bizarre angel of mercy, nor is he ever really believably explained. (He does come off better than Harry Dean Stanton's angel did in One Magic Christmas, where his manner of dress suggested a child killer.) The movie also fritters away because the ending feels too pat. Of course, you wouldn't believe a darker conclusion where Jack refuses the opportunity to get Kate back. But the movie-makers seem to have backed away from following through on the romantic impulse that comes from earning that second chance. Fortunately The Family Man isn't suffocated by the limits the narrative imposes on it. The actors have a way of turning the picture into something that truly suggests a wonderful life.

  Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism             

1 comment:

  1. Great movie with one of the worst marketing campaigns in modern film history. It seems to be "enduring" in spite of the awkward start and it could grow to become a Christmas classic!