Andy's Anachronisms
Time Travel Movie Reviews


The Family Man (2000)
What if...

Directed by Brett Ratner

The Basic Plot

Nicholas Cage stars in this Capra-esque movie as Jack Campbell, a high powered Wall Street business man who is given a glimpse of what his life might have been like had he married his college girlfriend Kate Reynolds (Téa Leoni) and settled down.

The Analysis

With inevitable comparisons to Frank Capra's classic "It's A Wonderful Life" it's a wonder director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour 1 & 2) and his writers David Weissman and David Diamond (Evolution) dared tackle such a story in the first place. While not exactly a modern updating of the George Bailey story, there are strong parallels, complete with an "angel" Cash played brilliantly by Don Cheadle who is responsible for giving Jack a glimpse into what his life might have been like had he chosen to stay in New York with Kate Renyolds, instead of leaving for London and the beginning of his business career.

The acting throughout is solid and Cage is convincing as both the boardroom bachelor and the tire salesman father-figure. As for Tea Leoni, she manages to portray a working mother and wife with an air of dignity and grace. Where the movie suffers is in its resolution of the central plot that pits Jack Campbell's desire to return to his single life style against his growing acceptance and desire for this new found family. Just as the movie seems to have hit on a brilliant compromise allowing Jack the best of both worlds, the story takes a wrong turn forcing Jack choose between career and family. As if this weren't enough to take the shine off an already charming film, Cash (Don Cheadle) as our Clarence Oddbody wannabe returns to remind Jack that his "glimpse" is over and that he must return. Cheating the audience of a "happy ending", we are forced to witness Jack coming to terms with the suddenly empty existence of his former lifestyle.

Warning: What is below may contain spoilers


In an attempt to make amends, Jack looks up Kate, who at the beginning of the film had left him a message. Jack discovers that Kate has long ago gotten over their break-up and is moving to Europe and wanted to return a few things before going. Heartbroken at seeing Kate after his "glimpse" he tries to convince her to give him another chance at the life they could have had.

I am generally against the idea of the traditional "Hollywood Happy Ending", since they too often feel contrived for the sole purpose of leaving the audience happy and content. Having said that, I am even more so against the idea of holding out a "Happy Ending" to the audience and then snatching it away. Such behaviour is nearly twice as evil, since it first proposes something that is unlikely or unrealistic, but then by chastises the audience for buying into it by revoking it and presenting a more realistic option.

I am seeing this type of dilemma more frequently in Time Travel movies where writers and directors are having difficulty concluding the film. "Kate and Leopold" also has a similar problem with the ending, unsure how to resolve it satisfactorily after having painted itself into a corner.

Part of the problem with Family Man is that in an effort to shy away from the "It's a Wonderful Life" comparisons it has seemingly sacrificed some of the narrative structure necessary to carry the film. The rules of Jack's "glimpse" into another world are implied and never spelled out. We are lead to believe its so that Jack can see the emptiness of his life, but when he does confront it, he is given his old life back to him as his reward. In the case of "It's a Wonderful Life", George Bailey's glimpse not only shows him how his life touched so many, it also gave him reason to hope and ultimately triumph. When Jack finally realizes his potential to be a family man and balance family with career, it is unnecessarily held against him. Saying in effect, choose one or the other not both.

While the ending may be a more realistic outcome on a certain level, the audience will likely feel cheated by the resolution. Ending on a hopeful, if somewhat downbeat, note the film manages to squander the warm-fuzzies you get at seeing Jack discover himself as a father and husband.

Well worth the rental for the acting and premise, but be prepared for some letdown.

Review Posted: 2002-07-11

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