by ALEX CARNEVALE
The Family Man
dir. Brett Ratner
Great directors make bad movies all the time, so why shouldn't bad directors occasionally make a good movie by virtue of simple chance? So it was with Brett Ratner's 2000 effort The Family Man, a masterful Christmas movie jam-packed with every cliché Brett and his casting director could think of.
This is not to say that The Family Man is anywhere near perfect. In a genre where Jon Favreau and Will Ferrell's abortion of a movie gets replayed more often than another flat Charlie Brown Christmas special, The Family Man actually has something to say about Jesus' big day. (Christ that kid is such a bummer; he's the male equivalent of the Jersey Shore grenade.)
The first problem with The Family Man is that the protagonist is named Jack and his love interest is named Kate. Although Lost had yet to be created, a little foresight would have been appropriate. Likewise with Tom Brady's two sons by different mothers that he inconceivably named Jack and Ben, this name game is downright unsettling. (Just as in Lost, Ben is the one who is half-Brazilian.)
Originally titled The Luck of the Dreidel, The Family Man isn't the first Christmas movie to be written and directed by Jews, and it damn sure won't be the last. The chosen people generally craft the most moving eulogies for Christmas because they fundamentally understand longing for an event that they will never be able to fully enjoy.
Jack Campbell is portrayed by Nicolas Cage somewhere in between the follically relevant days of Moonstruck and the I-hope-I-don't-get-my-wig-stuck-in-Mount-Rushmore madness of National Treasure. Campbell is a greed obsessed automaton who gave up his one chance at true love when he decided to go to London for business school and leave Kate (Tea Leoni) behind. This was ostensibly the right decision until an angel played by Don Cheadle tells him it's not and magically transports him to a new reality. The magical Bagger Vance-Jar Jar Binks-Yoda African-American character is profoundly embarassing and yet somehow reassuring.
There's a lot of important analysis to be done by either Deleuze or Foucault depending on if one of them is still alive about what all this means, but that analysis will be as little remembered the hackeyed It's A Wonderful Life-esque setup. It's what follows that makes The Family Man more than the sum of its Jews. Jack Campbell is magically transported to an alternate reality where he never visited that sinful financial capital of England. Instead his world has been completely flipped upside down! He lives - gasp - one hour away in New Jersey!
Unlike Jack from Lost, new Jack is a dedicated husband and father to two children...and it turns out it's not all that great to marry your first love. Really wish someone had screened this movie for Tiger Woods. The Family Man gets a lot of mileage about how horrifying suburban living is. For example, it turns out the other Jack Campbell's best friend in suburbia is Jeremy Piven. (That fellow is known for being so country.) For his part, Piven was probably bouncing powder by the baleful during this shoot, because he reprises his entire performance from Grosse Pointe Blank verbatim.
Instead of being a high-powered Wall Street executive, Campbell is a car salesman for his father-in-law's dealership. He runs the entire dealership, and from the number of employees and customers we observe, he seems to be doing quite well for himself. Yes, Hollywood's idea of a slumming it is a car salesman who probably takes in seven figures. Considering that by all accounts Cage was chalked up and buying homes in every time zone during this period, we can't blame him for not getting the details right. Had we known future screenings of this movie would be this ironic, The Family Man would have probably deserved an Oscar nomination.
That's because Ratner gets everything else right. The comic timing is brilliant and the script more than keeps up; Cage's winsome desperation is ideal for this role of a dick we learn to feel empathy for. Jack Campbell tries to dig himself out from his poverty-stricken, two car garage existence so he can give his family all the things he can't when he's selling marked-up foreign automobiles at exorbitant prices. Then, unexpectedly, he starts to enjoy his new life.
Jack wows his real boss in an alternate universe with his heady ideas about the financial industry. This juxtaposition is made all the more enjoyable now that we know that executive would kill for a successful car dealership like former NFL player Brad Benson runs in New Jersey. It's truly an amazing feat for Hollywood to misunderstand the world this badly. But hey, the best movies are based on tweaking the most common fantasies. Campbell's remorseless Howard-Roark style doesn't look like very much fun, but neither does a family you never have enough time to see and a wife who's too tired to fulfill you sexually.
What's unique about The Family Man is that it destroys both fantasies. The message of Grosse Pointe Blank, The Family Man, and virtually every other project Jeremy Piven has appeared in is that too much work makes Jack a dull boy, but also that the work sets you free. Both films deserve to be remade starring Ryan Reynolds and Anna Faris, and both films are ambiguous about what sort of life is actually best. When white males allow stereotypical ethnic traits into their world (anti-Christmas moneylending, African-American mysticism) they learn what will allow them to improve their old world, not survive in a new one.
When Jack Campbell snaps back to the 'real' world, he finds that in his absence Kate also became a financially-obsessed automaton, and she changed her name to Mary Rambin and adjusted her date of birth by ten years. One semester abroad can really change people. He finds her as she's moving her entire business to Paris, and instead of just feeling happy for her, he decides to reruin her life. No wonder Mary is so screwed up.
Christmas is a holiday with flaws. The build-up is extensive, costly, and aesthetically gauche, and the hype never fully pays off. Christmas Eve is all chills and anticipation and Christmas morning is a flat rejoinder to the excitement, like pressing on a soap bubble and watching it pop. We can never enjoy life as much as we'd like to, because it's more important to find what's wrong with our lives and fix it than to take it as it comes.
"My Grey Overcoat" - Peter and the Wolf (mp3)
"The Highway" - Peter and the Wolf (mp3)
"The Apple Tree" - Peter and the Wolf (mp3)