is the season for those feel-good holiday movies. You know, the ones where Fate arrives in one form or another to teach us a lesson. Often this lesson involves time travel: the otherworldly facilitator shows us the future, illuminates our past (i.e., points out when and how we blew it), or better, allows us the ultimate fantasy of reliving our past. And since we get to relive it with the benefit of foresight—or maybe hindsight—we do things right, we become better people, and we end up happy. Or happier. At any rate, the result is always the same warm and fuzzy feeling that all could be well with the world. Such is the way of Brett Ratner’s new film, The Family Man. It’s sort of A Christmas Carol meets It’s a Wonderful Life which means it’s not exactly groundbreaking material. But even though the plot is a bit worn out, it’s hard to complain about two hours of Téa Leoni’s adorableness and the thankfully-not-over-the-top-this-time quirkiness that is Nicolas Cage. And yet…
The Family Man
Nicolas Cage, Téa Leoni, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Piven
The film opens in 1987. Jack Campbell (Cage) and girlfriend Kate (Leoni) are saying goodbye in an airport. Kate is starting law school while Jack is heading off to London for a year to intern at Barclay’s Bank. When he gets back, they’ll kick off their life together. Suddenly, Kate is overwhelmed with dread and begs Jack to “do something great” by throwing the plan overboard and winging it with her. “I choose us,” she says, teary-eyed. Jack boards the plane anyhow, believing, it seems, that nothing much can change in a year.
Cut to Christmas Eve, thirteen years later: Jack is president of a Wall Street investment firm, living a life of luxury, and hooking up with Amber Valletta (okay, she’s not playing herself, but the point is that she is one of the luxuries in his life along with penthouse apartments, Ferraris, and $2000 suits). Kate is history and it’s apparent that one year changed everything for Jack. A better dressed, less grumpy Scrooge, Jack heads in to the office perfectly happy to work on his latest mega-merger straight through the holiday with few qualms about having his staff do the same. He is a willing, living sacrifice to capitalism, with a work ethic from hell and plenty of corporate plunder to occupy his down time. When his assistant (Mary Beth Hurt) brings him a message from the now-long-gone Kate, Jack considers returning the call but decides against it, convinced that she is calling out of loneliness, pining after the one that got away. Instead, he heads home to his empty apartment, stopping in a convenience store on the way. Here Jack meets Cash (Don Cheadle) when he tries to diffuse a confrontation between Cash, in full thug-life regalia, and the Korean store owner (it’s a pretty gross scene, this confrontation between two totally overblown stereotypes). Jack ends up dispensing condescending pat advice to Cash about cleaning up his act, getting into a “program,” etc., declaring finally that “everybody needs something.” Cash turns the question back on Jack, but Jack firmly believes he has everything he could ever want.
And that’s where the “fun” begins. Jack goes to sleep in his penthouse but wakes up in a crowded house in Téaneck, New Jersey, as husband to Kate and father to two children, Annie (Makenzie Vega) and Josh (Jake and Ryan Mikovich). Completely disoriented, Jack flees the house in the family minivan (isn’t that funny? he used to drive a Ferrari and now he’s driving a minivan!) and heads back into the city where he runs into Cash (guess who’s driving the Ferrari now?). It seems that Cash is an angel of some sort, sent to offer shallow but well-meaning folks like Jack a “glimpse” at what their lives might have been had they made different choices at critical junctures. For Jack, that means seeing how things turned out had he not gone to London. But he can’t get back to his “real” life until he figures out the lesson the glimpse has to offer, so Jack returns to New Jersey and tries to fill in thirteen years’ worth of blanks.
The Family Man offers plenty of laughs as Jack stumbles awkwardly through his newfound bourgeois existence, though we’ve seen most of the gimmicks before. Sure, it’s kinda funny to see someone downshifting from Armani to Penny’s, hanging out at the Bowl-o-Rama instead of a Vail ski resort, or running Big Ed’s Tires instead of a Wall Street firm. I have to say though, I have never seen what is so funny about a man who can’t figure out how to hold a baby or, worse, who practically needs counseling when confronted by a poopy diaper. And anyhow, we saw all this in Mr. Mom. But for all the goofy stunts, Jack completes his mission. But just when he figures it all out—realizes he still loves Kate after all these years, decides he loves his new life, his house, and being a father—the glimpse of what might have been ends. After all, Cash explains, “A glimpse, by definition, is an impermanent thing.”
So Jack ends up back in the penthouse, saddened by his loss and determined to make that “glimpse” a reality. He sets off to find Kate, who has been the perfect woman inside the glimpse: a super-mom, non-profit lawyer, spontaneous, laid-back, sexy, goofy, and fun. Outside the glimpse, without Jack, she’s a powerful lawyer for an international law firm who gives her assistant Prada bags for Christmas and is relocating to Paris. Basically, she’s the girl version of the Jack that was, only less of a jerk. We can’t help but feel a little disappointed in Kate for moving on and hope she’ll follow her own advice from 13 years ago and throw it all away to be with Jack. We get sucked into the wish easily enough. After all, the film did a great job of making their life together with the kids seem like something worth having. But then again, isn’t there something wrong with seeing her as somehow incomplete without Jack? She had once been willing to make the leap of faith and he had not, so why should we be made to begrudge her her success and apparent happiness? The letdown we feel concerning Kate, even if it is only fleeting, is indicative that, like Jack, we believed, at some level, that she was still waiting for him. Or that she should be.
Like most holiday movies, The Family Man is meant to have a very positive message, but it’s a message that is troubling too. We know from the start that Jack will wind up having everything he wants and needs in life. His reward for learning that he has wants and needs at all, that being rich but lonely isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is that he discovers his capacity to give and receive love, but without the inconvenience of being broke. And if his aversion to the middle class is a bad thing, how come he gets to take the good part of it (wife, kids, dog, friends), but leave the tacky behind? Worse, why should he get a second chance at Kate when really, he threw her over for his career ambitions years ago? Jack may have had to rough it for a few weeks in New Jersey, drinking jug wine and wearing flannel shirts, but other than that, the selfishness that led to him losing Kate and thereby the future he saw in the glimpse, has no consequences.
This film might tout “family values” at one level, and a pro-middle class message, but on another level, there is no cost and no sacrifice for Jack. His willingness to work through Christmas in the beginning of the film earns him the dubious compliment that he is a “credit to capitalism.” In the end, though, he appears to deserve that honor even more emphatically. Jack is truly a credit to capitalism only when he really has it all: wealth and power, yes, but an adoring, beautiful wife and the promise of kids to complete the package, further accouterments of his success.