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The Family Man

Friday December 22, 2000

     "The Family Man" is an ambitious, carefully crafted Christmas movie that tries to be "It's a Wonderful Life" for the new millennium but lacks the honesty to pull it off. Not even a sincere and heroic effort by Nicolas Cage can redeem the film's essential phoniness. Still, Cage's charisma and a lot of shameless heart-tugging will surely prove a potent lure with many moviegoers.
     Cage's Jack Campbell, the hard-driving president of a major Wall Street corporation, is on the brink of closing a $130-billion merger deal. Deciding to stroll home on Christmas Eve, he stops by a convenience store, where he defuses a rapidly escalating and dangerous racial clash between its Asian proprietor and an African American customer.
     The customer named Cash (Don Cheadle) proves to be an angel in street punk disguise. In a brief exchange with Cash, which brings out Jack's rusty humanitarian impulses, Campbell assures him that "I have everything I've ever wanted."
     Stretched out on his bed in his sleek, high-rise apartment, Jack falls asleep, only to awaken in a suburban New Jersey bedroom. Writers David Diamond & David Weissman and director Brett Ratner are going to give Jack a glimpse of what his life might have been had he not, 13 years earlier, disregarded his college sweetheart's dark premonition of disaster and flown off to London for a year's internship at a bank. He assures Tea Leoni's Kate, who's off to law school herself, that their love will survive the one-year separation, but clearly their relationship did not.
     Jack awakens to discover that he's married to Kate and is a tire salesman, working for his highly successful father-in-law (Harve Presnell), that Kate is a pro bono attorney, that they have a 6-year-old daughter and a baby son and a big mortgage on a comfortably cluttered house. Since this is a Hollywood movie, Kate is more gorgeous than ever and their marriage is intensely passionate. Nobody takes much notice that Jack is acting mighty peculiar, as if he didn't quite know his neighbors or what was going on, except for his precocious daughter, Annie (Makenzie Vega), who decides he's an alien and keeps him clued in.
     Now, Jack does find himself warming to the idea of a wife and children, and that's certainly understandable, but everybody and everything else seem pretty boring--perhaps more boring than the filmmakers intended. Just when the film begins to cloy in earnest, it takes off in an unexpected and encouraging direction when fate gives Jack the opportunity to hold on to his newly acquired family life while earning back his old corporate job.
     Kate lays on a massive guilt trip about him wanting to move back to Manhattan as part of the deal--just as she had done 13 years earlier about him going off to London. Haven't these people heard about commuting? (For that matter, she and Jack could have surely managed some budget flights between London and New York back in 1987.)
     It all makes you wonder: What is going on here? Kate is presented as the perfect wife, but if so, why can't she understand that a man of Jack's obvious brilliance might not be fulfilled selling tires? For that matter, what if it had been Kate who had wanted to go off to London? If Jack had tried to stop her, he would have been labeled a male chauvinist pig.
     "The Family Man" is trying to make a grand statement about the value of family over career, and in doing so, paints Jack, before the "what if?" fantasy overtakes him, as a ruthless materialist. Everyone knows that striking a balance between career and family nowadays requires the skill of a master juggler, but there are plenty of hugely successful men who are also dedicated husbands and fathers--and some of them are plenty ruthless in the boardroom.
     There's a false dichotomy running through this film, making career and family an either-or choice, and Kate, for all Leoni's radiance, is more killjoy than dream girl. Cage is a protean actor of wide range and authority, and the film's cast is large and substantial, including Saul Rubinek, Josef Sommer and Mary Beth Hurt as Jack's business associates and Jeremy Piven as Jack's New Jersey neighbor and best pal, and Francine York as his mother-in-law. But in terms the corporate Jack would understand, it's still no deal.


The Family Man, 2000. PG-13, for sensuality and some language. A Universal Pictures and Beacon Pictures presentation of a Riche/Ludwig-Zvi Howard Rosenman-Saturn production. Director Brett Ratner. Producers Marc Abraham, Zvi Howard Rosenman, Tony Ludwig and Alan Riche. Executive producers Armyan Bernstein, Thomas A. Bliss, Andrew Z. Davis. Screenplay by David Diamond & David Weissman. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editor Mark Helfrich. Music Danny Elfman. Costumes Betsy Heimann. Production designer Kristi Zea. Art director Steve Saklad. Set designer Lori Rowbotham. Set decorator Leslie Pope. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Nicolas Cage as Jack Campbell. Tea Leoni as Kate. Jeremy Piven as Arnie. Saul Rubinek as Alan Mintz. Don Cheadle as Cash.

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