Sorry for the week-long hiatus. A family hospitalization called me away, but I’m back to finish the list!
My family received The Family Man on DVD as an unwanted gift, and it was some time before we finally got around to seeing it. I’m glad we did. Whereas It’s a Wonderful Life presented a terrible alternate reality to encourage George Bailey, The Family Man hinges on another “what if” situation that causes Jack Campbell to realize the importance of marriage and family.
Nicolas Cage is at his best playing Jack as both confident businessman and sullen dad/husband, and most of the humor comes from his reactions to the sudden change forced upon him. Likewise, Tea Leoni is perfect as his could-be wife Kate; her performance spans the expansive range of spousal emotions, from insistent anger to glum disappointment, all surpassed by a familial give-and-take warmth. Don Cheadle also has a low-key role as “Cash Money,” the unexplained angel(?)/representative that gives Jack the glimpse. Also, (Lost alert) the Chinese guy in the convenience store early on is Ken Leung, known to Lost fans as ghost hunter Miles Straume.
It’s amazing that a film that depicts all the headaches of married suburban life turns out to be a tribute and endorsement of such, insisting that truer happiness can be found in a kid-harassed New Jersey home rather than an expensive but lonely apartment suite. Some critics didn’t consider the film an affirmation of middle-class suburban joy, pointing to Jack’s constant dissatisfaction with his situation, even near the end. Yes, his former/real life had its delights, which he understandably misses, yet it is just as he recognizes the preferred pleasure of this “glimpse” that it is taken from him.
That’s another sticking point for some viewers: Whereas George Bailey was shown his alternate reality to cheer him about his own accomplishments and worth, “Cash Money” plucks Jack from his ignorant bliss with a glimpse he neither wanted nor seemingly needed, only to return him to a comparatively dismal life made empty by his supernatural intervention. To be honest, I see how that view could turn people off, yet Cash Money’s motivations seem benevolent (a cross in the background implies he might be angelic), and his presence is ultimately just a plot device to initiate Jack’s change. Even if Jack thought he was happy, the reemergence of Kate reopened the door he closed thirteen years prior and made a better life possible if only he would jump on the opportunity; the glimpse was the catalyst. Such is how I see the film, and such is how I believe it was intended to be interpreted.
(Clear spoilers in this paragraph) I would have only changed one thing, the very end. While Jack’s final plea is wonderful, not unlike Billy Crystal’s in When Harry Met Sally…, the open-ended conclusion bears wistful potential rather than complete satisfaction. There was a 2010 remake with Kevin Sorbo and John Ratzenberger entitled What If…, which strengthened the Christian resonances in the story but was clearly borrowed material. The one improved point was the final scene, in which a home video the main character had seen earlier was recreated, indicating that the life and children he glimpsed did indeed become reality. Such a scene may have been overly clear for a sometimes ambiguous film like The Family Man, but it would have been more satisfying.
Excellent modern Christmas fare, The Family Man is also the best film from director Brett Ratner (whom I have never forgiven for ruining X-Men: The Last Stand, which coincidentally also featured Ken Leung). The Family Man is a celebration of the fulfillment found in family, and a bittersweet reminder of what could be lost down the path not taken.
Best line: (Jack, at the end) “I don’t know, maybe it was just all a dream. Maybe I went to bed one lonely night in December, and I imagined it all. But I swear, nothing has ever felt more real. And if you get on that plane right now, it’ll disappear forever. I know we could both go on with our lives and we’d both be fine, but I’ve seen what we could be like together. And I choose us.”Rank: 58 out of 60
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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