The premise of The Family Man is a combination of It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, and some viewers, looking for originality, will consider it to be cliche-filled and derivative. Those willing to give in to the whimsy of the plot will be beguiled by the charm of the cast and the humor in the situations.
Nicolas Cage plays Jack Campbell, an investment-banking whiz kid by day and playboy by night. He is engineering the biggest merger of his life. It becomes final Dec. 26, if his staff can keep control of the endless details that threaten to sink the deal. This means they must work through Christmas, but Jack has little sympathy for co-workers who want to spend the holiday with their families.
Feeling the need to stretch his legs and clear his head, Jack decides to walk home late on Christmas Eve. In a carryout, Jack meets a loose cannon named Cash (Don Cheadle) and averts some violence. As Cash and Jack leave the carryout together, Cash asks Jack a strange question: "What do you need, Jack?" Thinking of his power and his Ferrari and the parade of beautiful women through his bedroom, Jack says that he has everything. Cash smiles enigmatically and says, "Just remember, Jack, you brought this on yourself."
Jack shakes his head; there sure are some strange characters in New York.
The next morning, Jack wakes up, ready to go for banking gold. Then he realizes he's not in his bed. He's in bed with his college sweetheart, Kate (Tea Leoni), whom he left behind 13 years earlier. Jack panics and bolts the house. Snagging the keys to the family minivan, he drives to New York City, where his apartment doorman threatens to have him arrested, the guard at his office building urges him to get help, and the list of corporate officers doesn't include him.
When Jack leaves the building in a panic, Cash pulls up in Jack's Ferrari and offers to take him for a ride. "This is a glimpse into what might have been," he tells the befuddled banker. "You're going to have to figure out what it means."
If you equate The Family Man to It's A Wonderful Life, Cash, of course, is Clarence the angel and Jack has the Jimmy Stewart role. What makes this more than a knockoff of Frank Capra's classic are the situations Jack finds himself in, the way he handles them, and how he comes to realize that there are more definitions of success than he ever dreamed possible.
The Oscar-winning Cage keeps Jack from becoming too sappy by never abandoning the basic foundation of the character's personality. He is a hard charger who likes to win, and he remains one. It is merely his definition of what is important that changes. This makes for many funny moments, including a particularly priceless one when the whiz kid realizes that, in his new life, he's a tire salesman.
Cage is helped a great deal by Leoni, who is immensely appealing as a wife thoroughly confused and not a little exasperated by her husband's behavior. Cheadle, while not exactly wasted, is on screen only enough to make us want more. And Makenzie Vega, as Jack and Kate's 5-year-old daughter, Annie, is a little too precocious for the film's good, although early scenes of her helping Jack find his way through the family minefield are indeed funny.
There is no doubt that some of the situations are unbelievable, and the film piles on the family-values sentiment a little too thickly at times. But charm, poignancy, and perception are part of the package too.
Not a big fan of Nicolas Cage, I went into the screening fully expecting to be scornful of his latest project. Instead I came away amused and provoked into thinking about what might have been had different turns been taken in the road of life.
Those aren't bad results for any movie.
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