The Family Man offers but a slight variation on the threadbare holiday theme of what life might have been like had Our Hero followed a different path. Not only is it a redo of It's a Wonderful Life, but it's also a thinly veiled remake of 1990's Mr. Destiny, with Cage stepping into a role once held by Jim Belushi.
The Family Man is one of two films to be released this month that deal with the transformation of the Self-Absorbed Successful Executive into Sensitive Touchy-Feely Man -- all in a matter of 120 minutes. Both it and What Women Want feel like stale, smug homages to Regarding Henry or, given the holiday season, Richard Donner's 1988 Christmas Carol update Scrooged, which at least had Bill Murray going for it. They present the careerist as a manipulative and unfeeling sumbitch, until his life is upended in fairy-tale sequences that make Capra's fantasy seem as though it were directed by Leni Riefenstahl.
In this case, Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) is allowed to find out what his life might have been like had he not gotten on a plane to London in 1987, leaving behind his girlfriend Kate (Tea Leoni) and their dreams of a blissful future to chase his dreams of being a stockbroker. So he ditches her with the promise of returning to her in a year. "It'll be like I never left," he lies; he knows he will never return to their life together.
Cut to 13 years later: Jack's now the president of a Wall Street firm in the middle of negotiating a billion-dollar deal; Kate is but a distant memory. Jack is stoned on success and has his pick of stunning girlfriends. It is, of course, Christmas Day, and Jack has ordered his employees to ditch their families for their would-be fortunes.
Cage plays Jack with just a little sadness beneath the arrogance; he feels as though something is missing, despite his insistence he has everything a man could ever want. He's proved right by a stick-up man named, of course, Cash (Don Cheadle), who turns out to be his Clarence, offering the complacent, greedy Jack a "glimpse" of a different and no doubt better life -- this one in New Jersey, where he lives with wife Kate and their two children, wears boxers instead of black briefs, works at his father-in-law's tire shop, and flirts with a next-door neighbor. Jack finds none of his old friends and colleagues know who he is, and he couldn't be more appalled by his "new" life. That's when the actor transcends the obviousness of the material: Nobody transitions from confident to confused better than Cage. Too bad, then, he ultimately softens into a puddle of melted snow.
The Family Man exists in a world in which no one's ever seen It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol. The movie thinks it's clever and profound, even though we're so far ahead of it, we've been in our cars and on the freeway 38 minutes before the final credits roll.
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