It’s a wonderful family

Is Nicolas Cage a Jimmy Stewart in reverse?

Is Nicolas Cage a Jimmy Stewart in reverse?

Rated 3.0

In The Family Man, Nicolas Cage is Jack Campbell, a ruthless Wall Street takeover artist, sleek, cold-eyed, hard-hearted. In a prologue set 13 years earlier we see a different Jack—jeans, leather jacket, rumpled hair—saying goodbye to his girlfriend Kate (Tea Leoni) in an airport. She pleads with him not to take this internship in London, that it will mean the end of their relationship.

Now, today, we see that Kate was right. When Jack gets a message from his secretary that someone named Kate called, he tosses the slip disdainfully aside. That’s ancient history, and Jack Campbell never looks back. Instead, he keeps everyone working late Christmas Eve on their latest billion-dollar merger and orders them all back tomorrow.

Obviously, this Armani-clad Scrooge is cruising for some ghostly visitations. His Jacob Marley takes the form of a street-tough named Cash (Don Cheadle) who crosses his path in a convenience store. When Cash questions Jack’s life, Jack says, with defensive smugness, “I have everything I’ve ever wanted.” Cash snorts. Oh yeah? “Well, you remember, Jack, whatever happens—you brought it on yourself.”

Puzzled but unperturbed, Jack goes to bed alone in his empty penthouse bedroom. But next morning, the bedroom isn’t empty, it isn’t in a penthouse, and he isn’t alone. With him is Kate. They’ve been married for years. They have two kids. They live in suburban New Jersey. Jack is a salesman working for his father-in-law, the owner of Big Ed’s Tires. Rushing madly about for explanations, he meets Cash—a street punk no longer. Now he’s wearing the expensive clothes Jack used to own and driving a Lamborghini much like Jack had in his former life. What this is, Cash tells him, is a glimpse of what might have been.

The Family Man is, then, It’s a Wonderful Life in reverse—a transparent effort to create, as the TV ads say, “a new holiday classic.” It may or may not succeed in that—audiences prefer to decide what becomes a classic and what doesn’t—but the film is also trying to do something that could be even tougher—to domesticate Nicolas Cage.

Cage’s restless, feral combustibility is not something that is easily crammed into a tight family circle, and The Family Man is most interesting when we see him struggling against it. Trudging sullenly through the mall with his new-found family, his eyes light up when he tries on a $2,400 suit. Kate, flabbergasted at the price, wonders aloud what happened to the man she married, and Jack goes into a fast boil. “Look,” he snarls, “I’m sorry if I was such a saint before and I’m suddenly this … PRICK now.” It’s a startling explosion, and a reminder of the surprises Cage can spring on us when we least expect them.

In the eyes of his daughter (Mackenzie Vega), the outburst confirms what she says in an earlier, quieter scene: “You’re not really my Dad, are you?” She doesn’t know what happened—she thinks her real father has been kidnapped by aliens—but it’s an out-of-the-mouths-of-babes moment, and Jack’s face has “busted” written all over it. This world-class fake, who always thought he could fool the world, can’t even put one over on a 6-year-old girl.

The Family Man has many good scenes like that—another one is Jack welling up with amazement at an old birthday-party video, realizing at last what he’s missed all these years—and Brett Ratner directs with an eye for the cluttery details of middle-class life. But writers David Diamond and David Weissman can’t quite bring it home; I won’t divulge the ending, but it’s hasty and unsatisfying, as if Diamond and Weissman had set up Jack Campbell’s dilemma without giving any thought as to how they would get him out of it. (To their credit, they at least avoid the cliché of having bystanders applaud the stars as the music swells.)

“A new holiday classic?” Probably not. But Nicolas Cage is always worth watching, and Jack Campbell’s changes, until even his wary daughter accepts him, are well-developed for most of the way. The Family Man is nine-tenths of a really good movie, which is about four-tenths more than we usually get.