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by: Scott Renshaw

The holidays are upon us again, and with them the traditional seasonal influx of pleasant, uplifting and generally inoffensive mass-market films. This year in particular, such an approach would appear to be superb counter-programming; if 2000 at the cinema can be generalized, it would be as unpleasant, depressing and generally offensive. Feel-good should have been a welcome change in a year of feel-dumb or feel-dirty, but The Family Man never feels like the blessed change of pace it should have been. While familiarity and obviousness may be an understood part of such packages, The Family Man never takes advantage of its opportunities for a real spark. "Pleasant, uplifting and generally inoffensive" becomes "lazy."

The premise offers a what-if scenario that's the mirror image of It's a Wonderful Life … sort of. Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) is the unmarried playboy president of a Wall Street mergers and acquisitions company, the sort of guy who works late on Christmas eve to prepare for the next big deal. On one such Christmas eve, he encounters a strangely philosophical hold-up man (Don Cheadle) in a convenience store. After a cryptic exchange in which Jack claims he has "everything I want," he returns to his high-rise apartment … only to wake up Christmas morning in a house in suburban New Jersey with a wife and two kids. Gradually, Jack begins to understand that he's being given a glimpse at the life he might have led if he had married his college sweetheart Kate (Téa Leoni). And as time goes by, he becomes less and less sure whether he wants the life he has or the life he had.

As though there were any other possible character arc the film could take. The Family Man may begin as It's a Wonderful Life's doppleganger -- about a guy who doesn't choose small-town domesticity over a life of excitement -- it ends up in essentially the same family values kind of place. That wouldn't necessarily have been a problem if The Family Man had offered a bit more to engage a viewer along the way. Director Brett Rattner (previously of such warm, fuzzy films as Rush Hour) offers a visual style that consists primarily of alternating full-screen close-ups. He employs Danny Elfman for the score, then basically lets him recycle his wintry choral work from Edward Scissorhands. He drops a sub-plot involving a neighbor trying to lure Jack into an affair without any resolution. He even resorts to the most obvious of scenarios for a tough guy who needs to be brought down a peg: the ol' changing-the-diaper bit.

Most inexcusably, Rattner wastes Nicolas Cage. While Cage can be an inconsistent screen presence, he's almost always reliable when he's asked to go a little crazy. The Family Man should have been just such a film, but there's too little crazy Cage to go around. Instead, he spends much of the film wandering around in a state of mild bewilderment. Fish-out-of-water comic situations are rarely good for more than a titter, and the punch lines are often left for Jack's adorable moppet of a daughter ( ) and her "pwease don't kidnap me and my bwudduh" kid-speak. When Cage does get to bust loose, or even just react with disgust to his new friends' low-brow tastes, there's some funny stuff in The Family Man. Mostly, it's a limp comedy of unrealized potential.

It's a good thing that the appealing romance carries the weight for the ineffectual humor. Téa Leoni does great work with what she has, turning Kate into a thoroughly plausible, sexy and grounded wife and mother. The interactions between Leoni and Cage are the best stuff in The Family Man, almost effective enough in their sweetly Hollywood-ized romanticism to give the whole package a boost. But ultimately this is a film that is far more interested in cashing in on your good will than it is making the film worth your time. The Family Man asks a question with a rid


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