Earlier this year David Duchovny starred opposite Minnie Driver in Return to Me, a charming romantic fable about a widower who gets a second chance at love when he meets a woman who later turns out to be a heart-transplant survivor who just happens to be the recipient of his deceased first wife’s heart.
Now Duchovny’s wife Téa Leoni stars opposite Nicholas Cage in The Family Man, another romantic fable about a man who gets a second chance at love, this time when supernatural forces give him a glimpse of the life he left behind when he chose not to marry his college sweetheart. In the past I’ve felt that Duchovny and Leoni could both be rather wooden actors (witness Leoni’s flat performances in Deep Impact and Bad Boys); but this material seems to suit them well, and they both make engaging, attractive romantic leads. Perhaps someday they’ll do a project like this together.
If so, we must just hope that it’s more like Return to Me and less like The Family Man, a movie so flawed that I can’t recommend it even as a modest holiday entertainment. If it were only predictable, syrupy, and overlong, The Family Man might still be worth watching for the appealing performances from Leoni and Cage. Alas, its problems are more deep-rooted than that.
Here in a nutshell is one way to put the movie’s central problem without giving too much away. After an opening prologue set in 1987 — in which Jack Campbell (a somewhat youngified Cage) bids farewell to Kate Reynolds (Leoni in long hair) at an airport gate, reassuring her that they will be together again in a year — the story fast-forwards to the present, where Jack, still single and a hotshot Wall Street power broker, gets a message from the woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in 13 years. "Old flames are like old tax returns," another character advises him. "You file them for three years, and then you cut them loose."
Well, when all is said and done, the message of this movie might be put this way: Old flames are neat to look up years and years later, because who knows, the two of you might have had something really special if you’d stayed together, and maybe if you’re both still single you might still be able to hook up with each other after all. Which, in another film, might not be a completely worthless notion, but this movie takes such a roundabout way of getting there that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
Here is another way of putting it that gives away rather more. As anyone who’s seen the trailer knows, the premise of the film is that Jack meets a mysterious being (played by Don Cheadle and inexplicably called "Cash Money") who transports him into another reality in which he and Kate are married and living in a suburban New Jersey neighborhood with a couple of kids, a mortgage, a minivan, and a slobbery dog.
And of course at first Jack is horrified by his mundane domestic responsibilities (changing poopy diapers, walking the dog), blue-collar job (selling tires for his father-in-law’s business), tacky wardrobe (ill-fitting sweaters), and so on — the movie spares nothing of the lurid horrors of middle-class life. But, naturally, in time he becomes attached to his children and his marriage. One night, out to dinner with Kate, he asks her if she ever has any second thoughts or regrets about what might have been. Sometimes, she admits, she wonders about other directions her life might have taken: "But as soon as I do that, I erase everything in my life I’m sure of. The kids. Us."
So far, so good. The problem I had in the end — and this is a spoiler, so feel free to bail out of this review now, but I think you deserve to know what you would be getting yourself into — is that the movie really does erase everything this Kate is sure of, everything that for the last several weeks of his life (and the last hour and a half of mine) Jack has been learning to love.
Thus we get another airport scene in which Jack (now returned to the old familiar world, in which he and Kate haven’t seen each other in 13 years) tries to persuade this Kate (a high-powered lawyer) not to get on a plane. He speaks with desperate eloquence about a phantom life together that only he remembers: the children they never had, the marriage they never made. And somehow, something he says touches her, and she sits down with him for a cup of coffee. And the credits roll.
Will it work out for them? Will they make a new life together? Well, who cares? I’ve got nothing invested in this Kate, this jet-setter who’s about to leave for Paris. I only just met her. The Kate I cared about — the Kate Téa Leoni brought to life for me for ninety-plus minutes — was a suburban housewife and pro-bono lawyer who had two kids and wrestled with her husband over a piece of chocolate cake on the stairs of their Teaneck home.
And now, in this world with Jack sipping coffee with a stranger in an airport and the credits rolling, that Kate is gone, and those kids will never be born. Well, there’s a feel-good ending for you. How would you like to be able to remember children that you loved and who loved you and called you "Daddy" or "Mommy," and know that you will never find them anywhere ever again — not even (assuming you want to take such things into account) in heaven? (Some critics have lazily described the "Cash Money" character as an "angel" — for absolutely no good reason at all, unless you count the fact that Clarence was an angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie draws on the idea of "Christmas magic" but contains no trace of Christian themes or imagery, with the possible exception of what looks like a cross above Jack’s head on the street during a conversation with Cash Money.)
There are other problems as well. Despite the fact that Jack is supposed to fall in love with his suburban existence, I never got any sense that the filmmakers had any real affection, or indeed anything but contempt, for middle-class life. Jack may come to accept not being able to afford pork medallions in the finest Manhattan restaurants, but the movie never shows him eating a homecooked meal with any actual pleasure or appreciation. He resigns himself to life without $2400 Zegna suits, but never comes to any awareness that a $25 sweater might actually be comfortable and attractive. He may or may not be willing to live out his days away from the glass offices of Wall Street, but there’s never any indication that selling tires is anything but a living death. (The movie explains that it was because of his father-in-law’s heart attack that he stepped in to help manage the family business, so perhaps it was a heroic martyrdom; but it’s still essentially seen as a vocational death.)
And it may be worse still. One critic I read wrote approvingly that this ending allowed Jack and Kate to have "the best of both worlds" — that is, success and career fulfillment first, love and marriage and family afterwards. Is that the film’s real message: postpone marriage and family, pursue your career, and then when you get married you won’t have to worry about college funds or graceless minivans?
Whatever the problem here, it seems safe to say that throwing Money at it hasn’t helped. If you decide, against my advice, to see this movie, remember Cash’s warning to Jack: "You brought this on yourself."
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.