Culture » Film

The Self-Satisfied Man



The Family Man (PG-13)
Universal Pictures

It's Christmas, which means that it is time to fire up the VCR and put on some of the perennial favorites -- How the Grinch Stole Christmas and, of course, It's a Wonderful Life.

If you're sick of those old chestnuts, you could head to the multiplex for their re-do's and see The Grinch, or, perhaps a better choice, The Family Man, which, if not a remake of the Frank Capra/ Jimmy Stewart film, pulls deep in its references to the classic.

The Family Man is a perfectly acceptable takeoff of a great movie, and although it is missing virtually all of the original magic, it is still a decent film in its own right. In this version, Nicholas Cage plays Jack Campbell, a fabulously wealthy and successful Wall Street investor. On Christmas Eve, Jack has gathered his employees around the conference room table to discuss a huge pharmaceutical merger that will take place in two days. Never mind that it is 8:30 p.m. Christmas Eve; there's money to be made.

On his way home from the office, Jack does a good deed in a convenience store, and is rewarded with what his angel (Don Cheadle) calls "a glimpse" into what might have been if he had stayed with his college sweetheart Kate (Ta Leoni), not left her for a year in London and eventually dumped her.

In the first moment of his glimpse, Jack wakes up Christmas morn married to Kate with two young children, in New Jersey, with a job as a tire salesman in his father-in-law's firm.

Despite some very conventional laughs (to whit: the expected diaper changing scene where the inexperienced parent has to deal with poop for the first time), the movie does have a genuine feel about the confusion and difficulties and laughs that a man used to having everything done for him now has to face. And there are some rewards, too. Kate is a stunner with a body that can't possibly have borne two children. The kids are cute. Their house, while no Park Avenue penthouse, is a four-bedroom, two-bathroom, half brick jobbie in a good school district.

Both Cage and Leoni do a fine job portraying ambitious people who could have gone anywhere if only life hadn't thrown them a few curveballs. There is some good energy between them, even if Leoni goes a bit over-the-top in trying to portray the couple as madly in love even after 13 years of marriage.

So, if the performances are fine, and the script works well, and the references to It's a Wonderful Life are amusing, why do I feel so lukewarm about The Family Man? Forgive me a second if I digress into some social and literary criticism here by way of explanation.

In 1939, writer E.B. White wrote a terrific essay entitled "Movies" about the Bette Davis film Dark Victory. In this film, Davis plays a wealthy young girl with a terminal illness who decides to give up her horsy Long Island existence to go live with her true love in Vermont where she has "nothing." As White exposes in his essay, however, (complete with a line-item budget) the "nothing" that she has includes a nicely renovated farmhouse, three hired household help, and so forth. "So it would seem fairly safe to say that this little establishment where Miss Judith was finding such peace in having 'nothing,'" White writes, "was costing somebody ... somewhere between eleven and twelve thousand dollars a year."

He continues: "The interesting and really absorbing thing, to my mind, is that to the members of the audience, sitting there with me in the dark ... to them the illusion was perfect: this twelve-thousand-dollar country estate for a brief cinematic moment was indeed nothing. It represented the ultimate simplicity, the absolute economic rock bottom. It is disturbing to realize that even after we have been reduced to Hollywood's low, we are still rolling in the sort of luxury that eventually destroyed Rome."

Alas, almost 70 years later, The Family Man demonstrates the same remarkable ignorance of economic realities decried by E.B. White. Screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman have conflated all social classes below the richest of the rich into one giant mush. On the one hand, Jack's position as a tire salesman, a member of a bowling league, the reveler of backyard barbecues brands him as a working-class guy. On the other, the brand new minivan, the new furnishings, good audio/video equipment, excellent school district, children's ballet lessons, etc., make it clear that this is a family a lot of people would envy, just for their material well-being. Hell, I envy them their material well-being. It seems that for the Hollywood types, clearly accustomed to BMWs and cheap illegal labor, coming down in the world looks a lot like going up to most of us.

In a world so mis-observed, then, is it any surprise that The Family Man widely misses the mark that makes It's a Wonderful Life such a classic? In the 1946 film, writers Philip Van Doren Stern and Frances Goodrich created a character, George Bailey, deeply rooted in the economic realities of his small town. As a banker, George makes an important sacrifice for his own future -- not fulfilling his lifelong dream of going to Europe -- in order to save his neighbors from bank closure and economic hardship. The effects of that sacrifice show. George and Mary live in a rickety old house that they fixed up over many years, they don't have fancy clothes nor a spiffy car. But, as his angel Clarence makes clear, his family and neighbors would truly have suffered economic and social ruin if George hadn't made that pivotal choice.

By contrast, The Family Man divorces Jack Campbell from all community effects of his decisions. As a financier rather than a savings and loan officer, his actions are portrayed as affecting no one other than his staff and a few other people soon to be awash in cash. As a "family man," too, he is divorced from larger community impact, with obligations only to his immediate kin. Gone is the sense that a banker has a role in the many facets of his neighbors' lives. Gone too is the revelation that individual choice and action create a ripple of impact throughout the health of a whole community.

Where George Bailey finds his sacrifice redeemed by its effects on a whole network of people around him, Jack Campbell's choice means little except to the four people who live in his nice suburban house. To be a fully developed "Everyman" in 1946 meant to be connected to the world around you; in 2000, it means to be in love with a pretty woman in a nice suburban house with two children and a minivan.

No wonder, then, that the result of the contemporary take on fulfillment results only in a perfectly acceptable movie, a feel-good, a nice flick to take your spouse of many years so you can both rest easier about the compromises you've made. What is missing is all the substance of its great predecessor: the sense of uplifting spirit, of connection, of community, of dignity and reward in self-sacrifice. Having lost their grasp of economic reality and community life from too long a stint in Hollywood, the creators of The Family Man have in turn lost the essence of one of the great modern Christmas tales.

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