83 – The Family Man

Hunker down, kiddies, it’s time for a two-hour schmaltz-a-thon. This movie not only tugs at your heartstrings, it rips the strings out and whips you with them. Subtlety ain’t this film’s strong suit.

Nicolas Cage plays a slick Wall Street powerbroker (the only kind in Hollywood, and probably real life as well) who has it all: money, money, money, and power. Jack Campbell’s lacking a family, but he doesn’t see that as a bad thing. He’s also driven, obsessed with improving the company he works for – he even schedules a “crisis meeting” on Christmas Day. This guy’s got balls, all right. He’s making loot hand over fist, and he’s probably on his way to an ulcer or a heart attack before he hits fifty.

On Christmas Eve, he gets a phone message from an ex-girlfriend (Tea Leoni). Years earlier, the two of them had made a decision crucial to their lives – he went to England to intern with a prestigious bank, and she went to one of the finest law schools in the country. This facilitated their breakup, but since Jack’s made out rather well in the interim, he pays the call little mind. Then that night, he stops by a convenience store to pick up some egg nog. An irate lottery player (the always reliable and watchable Don Cheadle) pulls a gun on the clerk behind the counter. Jack offers to buy the man’s lottery ticket in an effort to calm the situation, and even attempts to rehabilitate the hoodlum. “Cmon,” Jack tells him, “everyone needs something.” “What do you need?” Cash asks him. Jack considers the point, then replies there’s nothing he needs. “Ok,” says Cash, “but just remember, you got yourself into this.” Hmm.

The next morning, Jack wakes up in bed with the lovely, the delicious, the married-in-real-life-to-David Duchovny Tea Leoni. And he has two kids. And a dog. And whoa! This isn’t Jack’s life, is it? He doesn’t like kids! And here they come, bouncing on the bed he shares with Kate. It’s Christmas Day, after all. But Jack’s in shock. He panics, grabs the keys to their minivan (Hey! Where’s his Porsche?) and dashes off to the city. What’s going on?

Seems Cash is some kinda sorta angel or something (it’s never really explained), and he’s offering Jack a “glimpse” of what his life would have been like if he had stuck with Kate back in the day. Now, those of us who are of a certain age do wonder from time to time what life would have been like if different decisions had been made. Jack’s problem is that his wonderment is now his reality. And it’s most certainly not the reality he’s looking for! The Single Jack is a hedonist who recognizes only responsibilities to his job. The Married Jack pays more attention to his familial responsibilities.

So we have a general fish-out-of-water scenario. Jack knows he’s Single Jack, and naturally he has neither knowledge nor memory of life as Married Jack. He doesn’t know his friends, his in-laws, his co-workers (he works as a tire salesman!), nothing. He doesn’t even know where he lives! Ah yes, mad hijinks ensue. It’s like in that Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show – the audience is in on the joke, but the lead character has no idea. See Jack stumble over gettin’ jiggy with his wife! See him mumble greetings to friends he doesn’t know! See him stand with his mouth agape most of the time, trying in vain to absorb everything.

And, of course, see Jack wrap things up neatly. Too bad it’s a two-hour sojourn into schmaltz, though. The problem with the movie isn’t that it’s sentimental, it’s that it’s a preachy film, desperate to teach us that Marriage Is Good. And think about it – how many guys do you know are married to someone who looks like Tea Leoni (and is a nice person, too), who goes to work at a tire place with a song in their hearts, who has a loving family with two perfect kids? This life doesn’t exist, and damn this movie for making the married versus single issue seem so black and white. Single = bad, marriage = good.

The best sentimental films teach lessons with such subtlety that you don’t realize you’ve learned anything until well after the closing credits have rolled. The worst of these films takes a lesson that most people know anyway and proceeds to whack the living crap out of you with it. Ok, ok! I get it! Married life = good things. Got it, ok. And thankfully, Jack got it, too, or we’d still be watching this drivel.

The Family Man: 5

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