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Dustin Putman

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The Family Man (2000)
2 Stars

Directed by Brett Ratner
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tea Leoni, Jeremy Pivens, Don Cheadle, Saul Rubinek, Harve Presnell, Makenzie Vega, Josef Sommer, Mary Beth Hurt, Lisa Thornhill, Amber Valletta.
2000 – 126 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for profanity, sexual situations, and partial nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 23, 2000.

Sort of a modern-day rendition of 1946's holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Family Man" is a fantasy in which a wealthy Wall Street dealer is given a chance to glimpse the wildly different way his life would have turned out had he married his college sweetheart. Aside from the premise, the film is not likely to become a perennial Christmas mainstay, due to its uneven tone and flawed, obvious screenplay that backs itself into a corner in which no possible conclusion could possibly be satisfying.

Opening in 1987, Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) is about to board a plane to begin a one-year internship in London, much to the pleading of his beloved girlfriend, Kate (Tea Leoni). If he gets on board, she instinctively tells him, their strong relationship will not survive a year apart, and their lives will go different directions. Fast forward to the present day, Jack thinks that he has it all: a great job that is making him loads of money, a very expensive Ferrari, a sleek apartment in a fashionable Manhattan skyrise, and a sometimes-girlfriend (Amber Valletta) who he basically uses for sex.

Following a chance encounter with a street hustler (Don Cheadle), Jack awakens on Christmas morning in the suburbs of New Jersey, with two young children and a wife in Kate. Instead of a high-powered exec on Wall Street, he works for the tire dealership named after his father-in-law (Harve Presnell), and instead of a wardrobe consisting of an endless series of suits, he owns mostly sweatshirts and sweatpants. Although something is very different about the way Jack is acting to his new life, it is his precocious 5-year-old daughter (Makenzie Vega) who speaks up about it, believing that he is an alien who has taken over her father's role. At first, Jack longs to return to his old, true life, but the more time he spends with his newfound family, the more he realizes what he has missed all these years, and how much he truly loves the effervescent Kate.

Directed by Brett Ratner (1998's "Rush Hour"), "The Family Man" is an occasionally sweet, but mostly trying experience that isn't written up to the intelligence of its two main actors. Taking a well-worn story that has been done before in a superior fashion ("A Christmas Carol" comes instantly to mind), the film grows tiresome very quickly, due to the predictable nature in which it plays itself out. A more lighthearted tone and a less-protracted length (it runs over two hours) might have made the movie an enjoyable piece of Christmastime fluff, but it overstays its welcome, hammering home a thin message that could have been solved in a lot less time.

The main offender is its screenplay, written by David Diamond and David Weissman, which lingers more upon the drama of the situation, rather than the comedy. While this approach could have worked, the film just isn't very smart. The rocky, but loving, relationship between Jack and Kate does not play itself out naturally, as almost every one of their scenes plays itself out in a particular fashion, with everything starting to look up until one of them says something that angers the other, leading to an argument. For a romance to work in the movies, there has to be genuine passion involved, and this is particularly difficult to establish when they can't seem to get along for longer than five minutes. A lot of their conversations deal with how much they love each other, or how beautiful and spectacular one of them finds the other, but with the evidence presented here, it is difficult to root for two people who are interesting and likable as individuals, but annoying as a couple.

Nicolas Cage (2000's "Gone in 60 Seconds") and Tea Leoni (1998's "Deep Impact") are both very good actors, and they do give it their all, even while their characters are merely going through the motions. Cage successfully exhibits the longing his character of Jack begins to feel when he discovers he doesn't, in fact, have it all, while Leoni is touching and strong-willed as the amiable Kate, who doesn't understand why her husband has suddenly grown so questionable about family life.

All of the supporting roles are wasted, and any subplots that result from them go unfinished. Jeremy Piven (1998's "Very Bad Things"), as Jack's best friend, is on hand to do nothing more than remind him of what a great catch Katie is, while Lisa Thornhill (1997's "Meet Wally Sparks"), as a woman who wants to have an affair with Jack, is a bright screen presence who is woefully underutilized. Don Cheadle (2000's "Mission to Mars"), taking up where Will Smith left off in "The Legend of Bagger Vance," is the otherworldly person who allows Jack to see the things he has missed by choosing the path he took thirteen years before. Only Makenzie Vega has good screen time as Jack and Kate's daughter, and she is quite an impressive young actress, adorable and talented without ever being cloying.

While the message that "The Family Man" wanted to make was apparent from the first twenty minutes, the way the story was going to wrap up was more of a mystery. Since most of the movie isn't actually real, but a look at what Jack could have had, it almost seems like a waste, and no matter how things were concluded, the ending would be severely problematic. Having seen the finale, all I can say is that it isn't terrible, but also far too tidy for its own good. That is the notable flaw of "The Family Man," in general. Instead of genuinely playing itself out, it is simply too neat--too disingenuous--to be worthwhile.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman