The Family Man Review

by "Harvey S. Karten" (film_critic AT compuserve DOT com)
December 8th, 2000


Reviewed by Harvey Karten
Universal Pictures
Director: Brett Ratner
Writer: David Diamond & David Weissman
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tea Leoni, Jeremy Piven, Don Cheadle, Harve Presnell, Josef Sommer, Saul Rubinek

    I once worked with a guy--we taught together in a New York City public high school--at a time that teachers had become unionized and were making fairly good pay. He wasn't happy. I thought we were doing OK. He said, "C'mon, Harv...everyone I graduated from college with is making lots more than we are. When the big corporate boys tell you that teachers are doing fine, that's just to keep us quiet, to make us think we're better off than we really are." This fellow sounded unhappy. Despite the allegedly low pay he griped about, he had purchased a three bedroom house--OK, it was in a less fashionable area of New Jersey--but it was a new house, it was built by Levitt (so there was not much differentiation between his and his neighbors') but, what the heck. He had a nice wife, three kids who didn't become dopers or criminals, a new car every five years. He kept talking about Harry, Dave, and Mike who got out of Columbia U. the same year as he did who were making big bucks on Wall Street or in the computer business. "But are they happy?" I'd say with a grin, knowing that this led to his usual response. "Damn right they are, and you would be too if you made their dough."

    There we go with the old question: does money buy happiness? Or to put this another way, can you be pleased most of the time if you made a decent, honest living, had a loving wife that made you the envy of your neighbors, and two adorable kids...and if so, what are the chances you'd be happier as this family man than as an arbitrage expert living in a posh Manhattan pad with no wife and no children? Who knows? We send a man to the moon but we still don't have a happiness meter.

    No matter. Brett Ratner tells us the answer in "The Family Man," a Capra-esque comedy-drama not as sentimental as "It's a Wonderful Life" but with some acting that updates the Jimmie Stewart-Donna Reed qualities to the 21st century. About the big question: wonderful family with a decent living vs. no family and big bucks, which is better...would I be giving it all away if I mentioned that the movie opens during Christmas week?

    Turns out that "The Family Man" is the best date movie of the year. The individuals whose lives are explored are not callow twenty-somethings who are too young to have a clue beyond their sophomoric discussions, but two people in their mid-thirties who are leading a mostly wonderful life in their modest New Jersey dwelling with a daughter of about six and an infant still in diapers. The story takes off during an emotional scene at JFK airport as Kate (Tea Leoni) tries to persuade her boy friend Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) to chuck his flight to London where he is to begin a promising career in high finance. She wants him to look at a modest life with her, convinced that once Jack gets on the fast track, it's goodbye relationship. Jack pulls away, boards the plane, and some time later is seen as the president of a company about to arrange a 130 billion merger deal. But he's single, he has lost touch with Kate, and he lives in a tony co-op on Manhattan's East Side. He's content enough until he finds out what he could have had--as a mysterious man (Don Cheadle), not quite a Bagger Vance type but still equipped with formidable powers--transports Jack temporarily into the kind of life he would have had if he took the road not taken. Instead of reporting to CEO Lassiter (Josef Sommer), he takes on the responsibilities of being husband to a far prettier person and father to two adorable but demanding youngsters.
    Nicolas Cage does best when he's cornered...put into dramatic situations whether of life and death (as with his role as the suicidal drunk in Mike Figgis's "Leaving Las Vegas") or off-the-wall intensity as in John Woo's "Face/Off"--in which he and Travolta both fly over the top beautifully. Life-and-death stakes are introduced here, but Brett Ratner--giving a well- paced visual display of Diamond and Weissman's screenplay- -is more interested in spiritual life than in the physical one. The one flaw that I see in the film is that Cage's character is hardly dead spiritually when he is doing the job he was made for across the polished mahogany tables in his high-stakes firm. He sings in the elevator, he is delirious at the thought of sewing up another difficult deal, he has a beautiful woman visit him in his Manhattan digs quite enough to satisfy him. Should he give it all up to grow old with the likes of Tea Leoni's Kate? Take a look at this riveting beauty and you might be tempted to say so.

    Ratner should elicit considerable interest from his audience with a sci-fi gimmick which has us think: How would I survive if suddenly I were plunged into a world in which none of the people I work with recognized me and all the people of my new life knew me while I was acquainted with only one of them? The picture combines a twilight-zone ambiance with a sentimental, but not cloying, comedy-drama making "The Family Man" some difficult-to-beat holiday fare.

Rated PG-13. Running time: 120 minutes. (C) 2000 by Harvey Karten, [email protected]


More on 'The Family Man'...

Originally posted in the newsgroup. Copyright belongs to original author unless otherwise stated. We take no responsibilities nor do we endorse the contents of this review.