Schmaltz often sells well during the yuletide season, so Universal may have a “Patch Adams”-size hit on it hands with “The Family Man,” a slickly produced slice of sentimental hokum that borrows freely from a half-dozen or so other, better feel-good fantasies. The only question is whether audiences will pay firstrun admission prices to see something this synthetic when they can savor TV reruns of the real thing — i.e., “It’s a Wonderful Life” — for free. Hard-sell marketing, savvy positioning and marquee allure of Nicolas Cage should be enough to generate strong initial interest and decent legs for this Christmas-set confection.
Once again taking full advantage of slightly against-the-grain casting, Cage is improbably but impressively adept at playing a high-powered Wall Street warrior who’s magically granted a brief glimpse of the simpler life he could have lived on the road not taken.
Prologue, set in 1987, introduces Cage’s character, Jack Campbell, just before he boards a London-bound plane. He’s eager to pursue a one-year internship at a prestigious British bank — but slightly uneasy about separating from Kate (Tea Leoni), his fetching law-student girlfriend. Kate warns Jack that, if he gets on that plane, the separation likely will be a permanent one. Flash forward 13 years, and guess what? Kate was right.
Not that Jack seems to mind his bachelor life as a high-rolling mergers-and-acquisitions whiz. Indeed, when his faithful secretary (Mary Beth Hurt) reports an out-of-the-blue telephone call from the almost-forgotten Kate, Jack brushes aside the news as an unwelcome blast from the past. Jack has too many important things on his mind — like a major deal that keeps him working on Christmas Eve, and a beautiful casual acquaintance he wants to unwrap on Christmas Day — to waste time on nostalgia.
Director Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour”) doesn’t often avoid the obvious. To his credit, however, he does refrain from pushing Cage toward the kind of excessive unpleasantness that actors cast as self-involved workaholics usually evidence in this kind of comedy. Indeed, Jack triggers his own comeuppance through an impulsively selfless act, when he talks a mood-swinging, gun-wielding street punk out of shooting bystanders during a convenience-store fracas. True to his wheeler-dealer roots, Jack “bargains” with Cash (Don Cheadle), who turns out to be a cross between the wise would-be angel played by Henry Travers in “Wonderful Life” and the crafty life-rearranger played by Michael Caine in “Mr. Destiny.” He knows what Jack really wants, or at least what he really needs, and gives it to the poor guy.
The next morning, Jack awakens in a parallel universe where he’s been married to Kate for 13 years. He’s a long, long way from Wall Street — specifically, in a New Jersey suburb where he’s employed at a discount tire store owned and operated by his blustering father-in-law (Harve Presnell). Jack has a loyal bowling buddy (Jeremy Piven), two children — 6-year-old Annie (Makenzie Vega) and infant Josh (Jake and Ryan Milkovich) — and a wardrobe that causes him no end of pain and embarrassment. He knows something is terribly wrong — and so does little Annie, who thinks he’s an alien impersonating her beloved father. Jack isn’t entirely sure that she’s wrong.
In this and several other respects, “Family Man” plays more than a little like a gender-switched version of last year’s “Me Myself I,” the underrated Aussie comedy in which Rachel Griffiths memorably essays an unhappily single magazine writer who finds herself miraculously married to the fellow she ditched 13 years earlier. Similarities between the two pics are almost certainly coincidental — according to the production notes, screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman first pitched their project in 1995 — but nonetheless pronounced.
For more than half of its length, “Family Man” wrings easy laughs from Jack’s not-so-quiet desperation in lower-middle-class discontent. (Cage conveys Jack’s mounting horror with just the right degree of darkly comic edginess.) Pic depicts suburbia as not unlike a lower circle of hell, populated with uncouth clods who know nothing about mergers, acquisitions or even fine wines. After an hour or so, however, Ratner and his writers attempt a jarring about-face, to show Jack falling in love with his wife, his children and his low-profile life as a salt-of-the-earth Joe Average. The switch is, to put it charitably, a great deal less than persuasive.
Filmmakers flash more mixed signals in their inconsistent characterization of Kate, who apparently guilt-tripped Jack into forsaking his Wall Street career for her father’s business. Dark suspicions multiply when, late in the pic, Jack gets a credibility-stretching second chance to work for his old bosses, at the company where he thrived before being transformed into a bowling suburbanite. Instead of being overjoyed that Jack has a priceless opportunity, Kate expresses profound displeasure, and more or less demands that her husband remain unfulfilled and underemployed. It reflects highly on Leoni’s acting talent and charisma that, even though her character is given to off-putting and arbitrary behavior, she remains sympathetic. It doesn’t hurt that she plays Kate with enough alluring sensuality to lend at least a modicum of credence to Jack’s third-act embrace of suburban life.
Cheadle makes the most of his few scenes as the ambiguous Cash. Among the other supporting players, standouts include Piven as Jack’s none-too-bright but decent best friend, and Saul Rubinek and Josef Sommer as Jack’s companions in corporate wheeler-dealing. As Jack’s suspicious young daughter, Vega affects a working-class accent that is meant to be endearingly comical but only serves to make her seem a bit strange.Production package is suitably handsome, with notably strong contributions from cinematographer Dante Spinotti and production designer Kristi Zea.