One of the most beloved holiday films of all time would have to be "It's a Wonderful Life", where a guardian angel gives a suicidal small-town banker a glimpse of what the world would be like if he had never been born. Thankfully, it turns out turns out that the world is much worse for it, and George Bailey comes to realize the immaterial riches that his life has been blessed with. Now along comes "The Family Man", which attempts to capture that same Capra-esque nostalgia in the guise of a romantic drama. This time around, a guardian angel gives a content corporate wheeler-dealer a glimpse of 'the path not taken'. However, in contrast to "It's a Wonderful Life", it seems that the life not lived is actually better.
Meet the unstoppable Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage of "Gone in Sixty Seconds"), president of a powerful New York mergers-and-acquisitions firm. He has a penthouse apartment in the middle of Manhattan, drives a Ferrari, dates women that seem to have come right off the catwalk, and everyone around him asks 'How high?' when he tells them to jump. Even though it's Christmas Eve, and his staff has plans to spend time with their families, Jack is all-business, ready to work through Christmas to close a multi-billion dollar merger deal.
Of course, the truth is that Jack really has nothing better to do. He said 'good-bye' to Kate (Téa Leoni of "Deep Impact"), the true love of his life, thirteen years ago at JFK Airport when he chose to pursue a resume-building overseas career in investment banking. However, because of the distractions of his accumulated wealth, he has never fully acknowledged the emptiness in his life stemming from Kate's absence.
But all that changes that night, after Jack has a run-in with a mysterious man named Cash (Don Cheadle of "Mission to Mars") after playing Good Samaritan to defuse what seems to be a convenience store robbery. When asked by the stranger if there is anything missing in his life, Jack claims that he is contented with the way things are, and that he regrets nothing. Of course, Cash doesn't believe him, and offers Jack a cryptic warning before disappearing into the night. Jack shrugs off the strange encounter and returns to his luxurious apartment, where he goes to bed alone.
The next morning, Jack is shocked to find himself in a four-bedroom suburban New Jersey home, apparently married to Kate and with two kids. In a panic, he runs out of the house and drives back into New York, where he is shocked to learn that nobody from his 'real life' recognizes him-- someone else lives in his penthouse apartment and someone else is president of the company he works for. Utterly confused, Jack runs into Cash once again and gets the scoop-- he has been given a 'glimpse' into what might have been had he not said 'good-bye' thirteen years ago, and it's up to him to 'figure it out'.
Devastated, Jack returns to his 'new' home, and gradually settles into the domestic disorder of his 'new' life. At first, he is appalled by how his life turned out in this alternate universe-- the other-Jack is an avid bowler, has no taste in clothing, and spends his days selling tires at retail for Kate's father (Harve Presnell). In addition, Jack is completely out of his element in trying to adjust to middle-class living, forming the basis for much of the humor found in the film. Some memorable moments of Jack's 'adjustment' include learning how to change a diaper, walking the dog, figuring out where he works, and asking for 'some sort of a receipt' when he drops his son off at daycare. Of course, Jack's befuddled state does not go unnoticed, leading his daughter Annie (Makenzie Vega) to believe that her father has been kidnapped and replaced by an alien.
Over time, Jack comes to realize the intangible joys that this 'other' life has to offer, and how much he still loves Kate. With the 'Wall Street' life becoming a distant memory with each day gone by, it seems that Jack has truly found the happiness that has remained elusive for the past thirteen years. But how long will this 'glimpse' last? How long does he have before the cold reality of his former life returns?
"The Family Man" may have the trappings of being a Frank Capra knock-off, but there's enough sentimentality and subtext to peacefully co-exist alongside "It's a Wonderful Life". In today's world, where time seems to be an increasingly precious commodity, "The Family Man" delightfully adds its own two-cents to the long-running debate of love vs. money. Through Jack's ordeal, the film explores the different ways in which success in one's life can be defined, and how family can be the key to lasting happiness. No doubt, many Baby Boomers will identify with Jack's plight, as he finds himself caught between a lonely life where he is top man on the totem pole, or a full one where every day seems to be an unending cycle of rushing the kids to school, working a seemingly dead-end job to meet mortgage payments, and looking after runny noses and scraped knees. He cannot have one without sacrificing the other. And instead of copping-out in the last act with some emotionally-false 'happy ending', the final act closes with a surprisingly-satisfying resolution that offers the hope that nothing is carved in stone, and that it is never too late to try again.
Director Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour") earns his stripes by tackling such mature and dramatic material with charm and refinement, without losing sight of the comic potential of the story. He is aided by a troupe of terrific performances, owing a great debt to both Cage and Leoni. Cage is not only credible, but he is perfect as the confused protagonist, who is knocked down from his perch of wealth and power, and left to wander through the mediocrity of suburbia without a map. And when Jack finally embraces what he has been missing for so long, Cage's expressive thesping leaves no doubt to his character's sincerity, even though the script takes a few shortcuts in illustrating Jack's transformation. Leoni redeems herself for the less-than-impressive work in "Deep Impact" with her touching, skillful, and captivating portrayal of Kate, which is partly-due to the strength of the script that gives her terrific material to work with. Finally, as Jack's daughter, Vega is memorable playing a precocious child charged with the thankless task of helping her father stumble through his new life.
If you're the type who watches "It's a Wonderful Life" faithfully every year, then "The Family Man" is the perfect film for you. Even if your love of the Capra-esque doesn't run quite as deep, "The Family Man" is still a perfect film for the holidays, as it manages to spread a little holiday cheer while serving as a springboard for self-reflection. This is something definitely worth checking out with someone you love.