Sometimes it’s clear that the qualities in a role that should’ve set off warning alarms among a performer’s better instincts instead seduced their actorly vanity. In “A Family Man,” Gerard Butler (who also produced) plays the classic type-A corporate arsehole who gets an ultimately redemptive wake-up call when a crisis forcibly reminds him that The Really Important Thing Is Family. It’s a showboating part he attacks with a forced gusto that only underlines the string of manipulative clichés that Bill Dubuque has provided as a screenplay here. Sparing no maudlin contrivance in a quest to jerk tears that remain stubbornly dry, this hokum is slickly executed by producer Mark Williams in his feature directorial debut. But the result never rises above polished plastic, formulaic, and pedestrian.
When the film starts with one of those “Yes I am a cocky SOB!” workplace monologues that always seem poorly Xeroxed from “Glengarry Glen Ross,” we immediately get the picture: Dane Jensen (Butler) is a Chicago corporate headhunter who’s got a gonzo, take-no-prisoners, ruthless, cutthroat, etc. way of doing business. He clearly thrives on high-octane workaholism, though that is a source of less satisfaction to the wife (Gretchen Mol as Elyse) he’s begun treating as an under-performing employee, let alone the three young children who are lucky if they catch a glimpse of daddy before bedtime.
That compulsive drive only shifts into higher gear when his ruthless, cutthroat etc. longtime boss (Willem Dafoe) improbably announces he’ll be addressing his “inner Kerouac” by traveling the globe and surrendering Blackridge Recruitment for keeps to a successor. Just who the latter will be, however, is left to be duked out between rival office team supervisors Dane and Lynn (Alison Brie). Whoever scores the highest commission total during the next month will inherit the company kingdom. As we’ve already sussed, Dane is not above fibbing a little — or a lot, as when he impersonates an FBI agent to scotch a client’s hire through another agency — to come out on top, so the competition will be … well, ruthless and cutthroat.
Unfortunately, his bullying bluster cannot win the day (though he does give it an initial try, on Anupam Kher’s specialist Dr. Singh) when eldest child Ryan (Maxwell Jenkins) is diagnosed with life-threatening leukemia. Instead, it will take re-commitment to his neglected family, just at a point when he’s itching to win the grand prize of his career to date.
There are no prizes awarded for guessing where all this is headed, and “The Headhunter’s Calling” hits every obvious anticipated note head-on. That encompasses everything from the overwritten hard-boiled corporate-jungle dialogue for office scenes to the familiar, phony over-precociousness levied on the child roles and performances.
The grownups fare better, though no one (excepting perhaps pleasingly low-key Alfred Molina as an “unemployable” 59-year-old engineer) transcends the hackneyed script. Mol brings some warmth and dimension to what’s still ultimately just another rote nagging “But you’re never here!” wife role. Given some particularly clunky, crass lines, Dafoe just survives a role he’s played before and better. As for Butler, this Canadian production does rep an attempt to break out of the hunk straitjacket Hollywood has wrapped him in. But however well-intentioned its choice might be (his own company produced it), “Calling” is the wrong vehicle to change that image and up his game.
Though partly shot in Toronto, the film does make strong use of Chicago locations, with a diverting if heavy-handed subsidiary thread involving father and son visits to local architectural landmarks. Shelly Johnson’s handsome widescreen photography highlights a glossy overall assembly.