|The Family Man
USA, 2000. Rated PG-13. 125 minutes.
Nicolas Cage, Téa Leoni, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Piven, Saul Rubinek, Josef
Sommer, Makenzie Vega, Jake Milkovich, Ryan Milkovich, Lisa Thornhill,
Harve Presnell, Mary Beth Hurt, Amber Valletta
|Review by Carlo Cavagna
he Family Man wants to be a heartwarming tale about the melting of a hardnosed financier's heart. It wants to affirm that there are things more important than money and career success. It wants to remind us to value the simple joys of family life.
It isn't. It doesn't.
Karl Marx wrote, rightly or wrongly, that religion is the opiate of the masses. One has to wonder what he would have said about movies like The Family Man. Instead of being an enlightened meditation on what is Truly Important, The Family Man teaches us not to envy the rich. Their lives aren't all that great--didn't you know? They may have money and think they're content, but they're not really happy. Not at all. One has to wonder how much longer Marie Antoinette would have kept her head if the French nobility had had a movie industry to propagate such silliness.
Worse, The Family Man tells us that reproducing and maintaining a stable family unit are more important that pursuing our dreams. Just settle into a small life without ambition... and that's it. Don't ask why. Don't seek more. The meek shall inherit the earth.
These are some pretty reactionary ideas. One suspects that left-leaning Hollywood didn't intend to purvey them. What Hollywood likely intended was a good-intentioned cross between A Christmas Carol and It's A Wonderful Life. But, as they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
The premise is this: Nicolas Cage is Jack Campbell, a shrewd, driven, Ferrari-accessorized financier who spends his life alone. It's Christmas Eve, and his company is on the verge of executing a half-a-billion-dollar merger. Except, the deal is not quite in the bag, so Jack orders everyone to come to work on the Yule. On his way home, he runs into a homeless man, Cash (Don Cheadle), to whom he foolishly proclaims he has everything he needs. Turns out Cash is The Family Man's version of Wonderful Life's Clarence, who now gives Jack a glimpse into the life he might have led if he hadn't left his girlfriend, Kate Reynolds (Téa Leoni), thirteen years earlier for a year-long brokerage internship in London. On Christmas morning, Jack wakes up in Jersey with Kate sleeping next to him and two young children bouncing off the walls. He drives a minivan; he has bad taste in clothing and décor, and, horror of horrors, he works as a tire salesman for Kate's father (Harve Presnell).
The snapshot of Jack's life as a high roller isn't a pretty picture, but neither is his life that might have been. In his real life, he is greedy, insensitive, and alone. But in his alternate life, his entire identity is subsumed into the relationship. He isn't just expected to make his marriage and his children his primary concerns…they are his only concerns. Kate repeatedly dissuades him from following his dreams, instead of trying to find some middle ground where his family and the pursuit of his dreams can co-exist.
Granted, Jack screws up in his alternate life when he applies for a job with his old Wall Street employer and makes arrangements to move into the city without consulting Kate. He screws up big time. But when he offers to commute from Jersey so the family won't be displaced, Kate still won't hear of it--as if being a good family man and pursuing his other dreams are mutually exclusive goals. They are not. Kate is the one who makes them so, again and again. Ah, but you see, there's nothing wrong with Kate's expectations, because the movie's implicit assumption is that driving a Ferrari on Wall Street is a flawed goal, and that you are a better person if you're a bowling league champion in Jersey. Maybe so. But is it really so either/or? Not until the end of the film, when we are treated to yet another one of those rushing-to-the-airport-to-catch-the-love-interest-in-the-nick-of-time scenes, is there even a hint that there may be a third way.
The 2000 holiday season's other broad Hollywood attempt to appeal to the My Best Friend's Wedding demographic, the pleasantly watchable What Women Want, was an inoffensive attack on cartoonish male chauvinism. The Family Man is insidious by comparison. The two male writers, who have apparently been watching too much of The View, have imbued Jack with the qualities pop psychologists like to associate with testosterone--drive, ambition, and competitiveness. Then they systematically show how these qualities are antithetical to a healthy relationship and family life. The Family Man pays lip service to the sacrifices Kate has had to make for relationship and family, but we are left to guess what they are. Instead, The Family Man seems to say that if men would just grow up, what a better world it would be. It's no less sexist than Porky's or Hardbodies 2. Is being competitive and ambitious always immature? Can women not be competitive and ambitious themselves?
Giving up your dreams--and, really, everything that makes you who you are--for the sake of the woman you love makes a nice fairy tale. But it's not a healthy foundation for a relationship. Most women who want the kind of perfect women's-magazine husband that Kate expects Jack to be are headed for disaster.
It's a relief that Cage and Leoni are appealing performers (Leoni's incongruous performance in Deep Impact notwithstanding--she really should work more), because otherwise The Family Man would be unrelentingly unwatchable. The writers can't decide if Jack is Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey, and the fact that Cage holds those two sides of Jack's personality together reasonably well is a testament to his talent. Thematically, however, The Family Man is a despicable film. Besides that, it's awfully difficult to swallow lectures on the beauty of a modest existence from filmmakers who live in Beverly Hills, Malibu, and Bel Air.
© April 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.
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