Published November 1, 2000
The Family Man, written by David Diamond and David Weissman and directed by Brett Ratner, is an attempt at a reverse It’s a Wonderful Life for the Christmases of the new millennium. Jack Campbell (Nicholas Cage) is a high-flying Wall Street whiz kid and swinging bachelor whose angel (played by Don Cheadle) lets him see not how much poorer the world would have been without his life but how much richer it would have been if he had chosen to live it differently. This would be an inherently more banal sort of treatment of the theme, even if it were not wedded to the spirituality of the gym. This offers its audience a warm, self-congratulatory glow that never quite takes its eye off the self-enhancement and self-actualization that wife and kids and community are supposed to bring to look clearly at the proper valuation of the wife and kids and community themselves. Jack Campbell is still the center of Jack Campbell’s universe, whether he’s the hard-charging tycoon or the family man.
Thus, what the film strives for, or at least achieves, is not so much the bourgeois uplift of It’s a Wonderful Life as the yuppie fantasy of Sliding Doors or Me, Myself and I. It is also a parable of the male mid-life crisis, just as those movies were of the female equivalent. When Jack the mergers and acquisitions specialist from the Upper West Side wakes up to find himself transformed to Jack the tire salesman from New Jersey, married to his college sweetheart (Tea Leoni), working for his father-in-law and himself the father of two kids, his dismay is clearly intended to make our flesh creep: “Why, God? Because you thought I was cocky, I’m now in this permanent asset trap?” Poor mergers and acquisitions specialist! Doesn’t your heart just go out to him? This is the problem with the film. It is hard to feel too much sympathy for a guy who sees it (at first, anyway) as a disaster to live only as well or better than most of those in his audience.
Even this serious drawback to the film might not have been insurmountable if it hadn’t been for the fact that the filmmakers just can’t resist giving Jack back his Wall Street principality as well as the wife and kids. Or at least the opportunity to have it. One day a Wall Street colleague from Jack’s other life happens to be driving through New Jersey when his Rolls Royce gets a flat tire. Next thing you know the impressive young tire salesman is back on his way to the top. The film is also, therefore, a tribute to the fantasy that deep inside any given tire salesman there is a Wall Street tycoon of the first rank who just got a bad break or two. Implicitly, the film accepts the shallow, materialistic view of success that explicitly it rejects. The alternative for Jack is not, as it was for George Bailey, mere self-fulfilment. Self-fulfilment of a vocational or professional sort is scarcely imaginable apart from riches on an almost Gatesean scale.
For while the text puts family above money, the subtext gives the prize to the money— because it takes the money as the norm from which family is just a sort of experimental deviation, even if claims to find the experiment successful. The good solution is obviously and always to have it all. As, indeed, why should one not when marriage is so far ideal as to involve the delectable Kate, Miss Leoni’s character? Even a mergers and acquisitions specialist, let alone a tire salesman, might forsake his tom-catting if it meant being married to her. The kids, too, are adorable, and it is hard to escape the sense that the film’s endorsement of family values is contingent on their all being so Christmas-card perfect.
The marriage, too, is a yuppie ideal. Kate works as a public interest lawyer, and Jack is expected to take a perfectly equal share in the domestic and child-rearing duties that his new status entails. In this respect, the film goes for the double, for the female as well as the male fantasy, as the untamed tycoon (or would-be tycoon) is thoroughly domesticated. So perfect a husband is he, in fact, that Kate rather thinks she doesn’t want him to take the Wall Street job. The Manhattan co-op and private school for the kiddies would be nice, of course, but it might be easier to keep Jack changing diapers and chauffeuring the kids to school and day-care if he remains a tire salesman.
Don’t worry, though. Mr Cheadle’s angel and the weird supernatural stuff put in another appearance at the end to make sure (we feel confident) that New Jersey will remain the dream and Manhattan—with the addition of Kate (but not kids), neatly extracted from the other life—the reality.