Spiritual rebirth is at the center of "The Family Man," and director Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour") gives that theme the Hollywood treatment: He ably delivers an entertaining romantic comedy that delights despite (or, others may feel, because of) its high mush quotient. It's a sentimental, saccharine piece of work that's sure to appeal to audiences disinclined toward the season's more serious fare.
A fantasy that borrows from sources as varied as Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and director-writer Peter Howitt's 1998 film, "Sliding Doors," "The Family Man" is actually most derivative of "It's a Wonderful Life," that bit of Capra corn that's perennially rebroadcast during the holidays. In that film, of course, George Bailey learned how his life would have played out had he not made the right decisions. Ratner's film represents the flip side: How much more fulfilled might mergers-and-acquisitions superstar Jack Campbell be had he not made the wrong choice 12 years ago? Should Jack have blown off his internship at a London bank and opted instead to stay close to his cute, adoring girlfriend, Kate (Téa Leoni)?
Nicolas Cage, easily bouncing back from his action-hero role in the disastrous "Gone in 60 Seconds," strikes the right tone as Jack, a wealthy, go-getting Wall Street executive who's so driven that he works late on Christmas Eve, long after his colleagues have gone home. Walking back to his luxurious penthouse apartment, he stops at a convenience store and breaks up a potentially deadly struggle between a Korean clerk and a tough African-American street thug named Cash (Don Cheadle). "You brought it on yourself," Cash says, ominously.
Faster than we can say "What if?," it's Christmas morning, and Jack is in bed next to Kate, waiting to be rudely awakened by a pair of cuddly rugrats -- Annie, 6 (Makenzie Vega), and baby Josh (Jake and Ryan Milkovich). Horror of horrors: Jack is in suburban New Jersey, making ends meet as a manager in a tire store operated by his pushy father-in-law (Harve Presnell). He drives a messy minivan instead of his Ferrari. And camaraderie with a bland bowling-league buddy (Jeremy Piven) has replaced his friendships with high-power colleagues (Saul Rubinek and Josef Sommer).
It's a lot of fun watching Cage's Jack react to this new life -- a vast wasteland of single-family homes, menial employment, boring parties, petty domestic squabbles, off-the-rack suits and dirty diapers. Then there are the overtures of a hot-to-trot acquaintance (Lisa Thornhill).
Even little Annie realizes something is askew. "You're not really my father, are you?" she asks, eyeing this man who would be her dad and deciding that he must be an alien invader. "Welcome to Earth."
Cage handily navigates these comic situations, and Leoni (last seen on the big screen two years ago in "Deep Impact") brings dramatic agility to a straight-woman role that's somewhat problematic. Kate, now a pro-bono lawyer who carefully divides her time between work and home, is the kind of woman who frowns on her husband's interest in a chance-of-a-lifetime job.
Through her disapproval, the script seems to suggest that a family life and professional fulfillment are mutually exclusive concepts. The patronizing "The Family Man" teaches us that, after all is said and done, it's really OK to go the route of one spouse, two kids, a couple of pets, a mortgage, and weekends dominated by the kids' soccer games and ballet classes. Thanks, Nick. Thanks, Téa. Thanks, Hollywood. Now we'll be able to sleep nights.
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