I refuse to join the masses who insist on comparing this movie to the classic It's A Wonderful Life. Instead, I feel it's more of a cross between Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Mr. Destiny, the 1990 film where James Belushi experienced what his life would have been like if he hit that homerun back in his schooldays. The Family Man is yet another take on those themes of "what if?" and probably won't win points in anyone's book for originality. But what the movie lacks in creativity it makes up in delivery.
Fans of Nicolas Cage (particularly his non-violent roles) will enjoy his performance here as high-powered executive Jack Campbell, president of a mergers and acquisitions firm. He throws himself into the role with such believability that when Tea Leoni asks "How can you look at me like you haven't seen me everyday for the last 13 years?", it feels like it's directed more at the actor than the character. And Tea Leoni, who plays Jack's true love Kate, comes across as cute with her happy-go-lucky idiosyncrasies: she sings with off-key gusto in the shower, acts like a kid when she is expecting her anniversary gift, and defends a piece of chocolate cake with uncanny tenacity. To her credit, Leoni delivers a lot of corny dialogue, yet somehow elicits a good deal of sympathy from the audience.
The story begins its trek into the Twilight Zone one Christmas Eve when Jack is working late at the office. After pulling a long shift and scheduling a meeting for Christmas Day, he stops by a convenience store, where he gets caught in the middle of a holdup. In a moment of wonderful subtlety, the robber has to ask him twice, "Do you want to die?" before he gives an answer, demonstrating his true uncertainty about his own happiness. After some fast thinking and faster talking, Jack resolves the situation, and goes home with something to think about.
When he wakes up the next morning, Jack doesn't find himself in his cozy, high-rise penthouse. Instead, he wakes up beside his wife Kate, with two rugrats bouncing on the bed and a slobbering family dog drooling on his face. Much to his surprise, Jack soon discovers that he is experiencing a "glimpse," a look at what could have been had he married Kate instead of pursuing his career.
Much of the movie's laughs are based on Jack being unhappy with his glimpse life (he's a tire salesman, he's poor, and he's on bowling league) and being a fish out of water (he's unaccustomed to being a husband, much less a father). When he has to do mundane family business like walking the dog, he easily becomes frustrated, reprimanding the dog in that trademark Nicolas Cage slackjawed way: "Could you please take a DUMP some time this decade?" The comical moments aside, the movie focuses on how these little, everyday things grow on Jack, until he learns to appreciate the "truly important things" in life.
The decidedly jaded may be annoyed at how overly sentimental the movie gets at times. The Family Man attacks the heartstrings with calculated, Hollywood precision--we're talking Bicentennial Man deviousness. From the various expressions of affection to the little girl who says things meant to get you teary-eyed, this story viciously tries to get at your emotions. I saw this movie with fellow Radio Free staffer Sarah Gilliam, who is particularly susceptible to such things, and she just about lost it at least three times.
Accepting the occasional sappiness of the movie, though, my only real complaint was the drawn out ending, which I thought could have been better served with a conclusion that leaves the audience hanging. One of the great things about Jack's glimpse world was that its existence was left open to interpretation. As in A Christmas Carol, you could decide for yourself whether it was supernatural intervention or just a dream. Such a vague ending about Jack's real world relationship with Kate would have been more interesting than the one we got, which includes a fairly lengthy speech.
If you like feel-good movies that try to uplift and inspire at whatever the cost, then The Family Man is an excellent choice, especially as a holiday selection. Cage and Leoni are both good, and the movie's premise of unfulfilled dreams works. Some may argue that the movie is too unoriginal, but there's a reason why this story has been done countless times on film and television: people like it, and people always doubt their own lives at one time or another.
(Sidenote: This take on a universal story gets an extra bonus point for its rating, due to its sentimental effect on Sarah.)
Rating: 7 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)