During the end of the year holiday season, there are usually all sorts of things to look forward to, but sometimes certain people dread certain aspects of that time of year. For some, that includes the thought of receiving a gift that you know isn't going to be any good, doesn't match your tastes or that's a duplicate one that you already have.
Yes, that's a bad attitude and as they say, one shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth and should instead be happy that someone took the time and effort to pick something out. Nevertheless, most of us have experienced that feeling at one point or another.
Going into "The Family Man" in its Christmas release slot, I had that same gut feeling. Although I've liked Nicolas Cage in most everything he's been in, and certainly didn't mind director Brett Ratner's first effort, "Rush Hour," this film simply seemed like yet another lame rip-off of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" or the many films either adapted from or influenced by that work, such as "It's a Wonderful Life," "Scrooged," etc.
You can imagine my surprise then, when once the package was opened, so to speak, I realized that despite the similarity to other cinematic gifts given in the past, this one had a certain fresh and exuberant feel to it. My gift then to you, dear readers, is the recommendation for you to go out and see this film.
While the script by David Diamond & David Weissman (marking their first produced effort) is just another variation on the "get a second chance at life" scenario that drove Dickens' tale as well as all of those films derived from it, the way in which the cast and crew put a fresh spin on it is nothing short of entertaining and quite enjoyable.
Although it has the obligatory and heartfelt moments - that actually manage to work while avoiding any off-putting mawkishness thanks to those collective efforts --- the most surprising thing about the film, especially considering the way in which it's being advertised, is just how funny it is.
Some of that must obviously be attributed to Ratner's direction and the screenwriters' smartly written script. Such humor, however, mostly works due to the fabulous comedic performance from Nicolas Cage ("Gone in 60 Seconds," "Bringing Out the Dead"). No stranger to playing comically befuddled characters - think of "Raising Arizona" and especially "Honeymoon in Vegas" - Cage might not be challenged that much by what he's asked to do here. Yet, few do the exasperated, confused and panicked look all rolled into one better than Cage, and he does it so well that you can't help but smile, laugh and maybe even snort in reaction to what his character encounters and how he reacts to that.
That, of course, is the classic "fish out of water," Twilight Zone type scenario that's also fueled films as diverse as "Me, Myself, I" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" - among many others - where the protagonist suddenly finds him or herself living in an alternate reality/universe where everyone else thinks that they are their own doppelganger that they've suddenly replaced.
As in most such films, the fun then comes from watching that person discover and explore their new world, particularly as it compares and contrasts to their old identity and place in their former reality/universe. Here, the high-flying, ultra-successful Wall Street playboy suddenly finds himself living a suburban, blue-collar existence where he's married with kids, that, as he states, he usually only likes on a case-by-case basis.
Some of the best such moments involve him learning about his daily duties, including the obligatory but still amusing changing diaper scene. Far better is a following moment where he drops off the tyke at daycare - at arm's length, no less -- and then waits and wonders if he's supposed to receive a receipt or something for the "transaction." Also quite charming are moments where his six-year-old daughter comes to the realization that he's not her real father, but instead an alien who's been made to look exactly like him, and needs advice of how to fit in.
The reason for all of this, of course, is for him to see the error of his past decisions, but unlike "A Christmas Carol" or "It's a Wonderful Life," he isn't initially mean to others or suicidal. He's just self-centered, and this twist of fate is designed as an eye opener that will give him the chance to right his ship, if you will, while he still has the time to do so. While it's obvious that none of that's particularly novel, the basic premise still works, especially considering the way in which the filmmakers have fashioned it here.
All of that said, there are a few problems. Beyond the fact that some viewers - and probably many critics - will find some of the proceedings too syrupy sweet (when not complaining about the borrowing/theft of the underlying concept), some of the seemingly more important characters dry up or disappear altogether.
Among them is the catalytic angle/ghost character played by Don Cheadle ("Mission to Mars," "Out of Sight"). We never know too much about him, and he feels somewhat like an underdeveloped contrivance, as if the filmmakers weren't exactly sure how and when to use him. Any standard blow to the head could have caused the same "wake up in another reality" scenario and thus prevented the need for such a role, especially an underdeveloped/unexplained one like this.
The other character who vanishes is the best friend played by Jeremy Piven ("Very Bad Things," "Grosse Pointe Blank"). Although he appears to be a pivotal character for Jack's turnaround and gets a quick succession of scenes, he then disappears without a trace (with later scenes probably ending up on the cutting room floor).
In addition, the protagonist isn't quite as proactive as I would have liked in attempting to reclaim his old life (although that's somewhat solved by a late in the game development that some will feel as too contrived), and the reactions of the wifely character charmingly played by Téa Leoni ("Deep Impact," "Flirting With Disaster") to her "new" husband's behavior aren't always exactly what one would consider realistic.
Regarding all of those points, one must remember, however, that the alternate reality that comprises most of the film is supposed to be something of a surreal fantasy. As such, much of that can be accepted/overlooked if viewed within such parameters. While I'm sure the film will have its share of snooty, "bah humbug" detractors, this is the type of heartwarming and funny cinematic gift that most moviegoers will enjoy unwrapping and experiencing this holiday season. "The Family Man" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.