Nicolas Cage and his lunatic energy have often proven hard to neuter, although not for a lack of trying. 2000’s The Family Man, which sees Cage as a Wall Street goon who magically gets a chance to live an alternate life, is a perfect example of this. This melodrama attempts to curtail the thespian’s obvious insanity and fails completely. Fortunately, this is also the film’s saving grace, transforming a limp-noodle, problematic fantasy into an effective, occasionally uproarious comedy, enjoyable for both Cage fans and the uninitiated alike.
In The Family Man, Cage plays Jack Campbell, a somewhat less murdery version of Patrick Bateman. A prime Cage role, Campbell is a zany Wall Street broker. In the film’s 1987 prologue, viewers learn that he left his tearful college girlfriend Kate (Tea Leoni) for an internship in London which then bloomed into a promising career in finance. When the film flashes forward to 2000, we see that he spends his days enjoying glitz, glamour and high-powered, phenomenal deal making. He loves his job, which is conveyed through scenes of him singing opera tunes like a madman as he dresses for the office and talking about capitalism with lip-smacking glee. He also has not spoken to Kate in more than a decade.
Still, Jack appears content with his personal life. One of the film’s earliest scenes depicts Campbell in his penthouse apartment, bidding adieu to an anonymous sexual conquest as she slides back into a slinky black dress. Shirtless and sprawled out on his bed reading the paper, he exchanges some stilted dialogue with the woman. “You are an amazing lover,” he coos in a way that will make you want to jump out the window.
This scene showcases Cage’s iconic ability for riffing, which obliterates any possibility for the character of Campbell to be taken seriously. “It’s Christmas Eve, Jack,” the woman says after Campbell asks to see her again the same day. “So? I’ll pour egg nog over you,” he creepily responds, his mouth a sneer, his eyes dead. Then, without warning, Cage inexplicably meows, the type of flirtation that is supposed to be playful but is instead almost unbearably goofy. This moment highlights the unearthly nature of Cage’s performing style, as his meow sounds like it is coming from someone who has never heard a cat before.
Written by David Diamond and David Weissman, the ignominious duo behind cinematic poop pellets like Evolution and Old Dogs, The Family Man’s plot is pedestrian, a Capra-esque fable and not a good one. The rug is pulled out when a seemingly random meeting with Don Cheadle’s stick up artist/magical negro Cash inexplicably sends Campbell into an alternate reality. In this timeline, Cash never went to London. He stayed in the states, married Kate, had two children and eventually found himself mired in suburban life, complete with participation in a community bowling league (the horror).
The Family Man is directed by Hollywood hack Brett Ratner, who does nothing aside from service the script. The film verbally hammers home (ad nauseum) that, instead of a lavish Manhattan existence, a truly enviable life is one defined by modesty and family. Yet, it does nothing to really corroborate that idea or explore the ambivalence that can be a part of both lifestyles.
For instance, while it would be right to classify the Wall Street Campbell as somewhat vapid, he isn’t a monster. He is shown to be fairly respectful of working people, not terribly misogynistic, and while he clearly festishizes money, his behavior isn’t abnormal for a man who is the head of a firm pursuing a major deal. At the very least, he never fires off any lines that are particularly Scroogian, like that the poor should die and “decrease the city’s surplus population.”
His life on Wall Street is just kind of empty, but it ultimately seems to fulfill him. His alternate reality life is also pretty amazing. As played by Tea Leoni, Kate comes off as a kind, compassionate partner, who selflessly does pro bono legal work and who is the main facilitator of the couple’s sexual life. He also finds that his child – an adorable, lispy cherub played by Makenzie Vega – is bright, helpful and intuitive. She almost immediately recognizes a profound change in her father, attributing the seismic shift in his personality to an alien abduction. Even his best friend, a silly oaf played by Jeremy Piven, is a gem: an intensely loyal voice of reason.
Of course, there are some flaws. Suburbs Jack Campbell has a dull job selling tires for his father-in-law. He also must contend with the existential horror that can only come from a poop-covered, piss-sprouting baby. Despite these minor troubles, his life in the burbs doesn’t appear half bad, which is perhaps why Campbell’s reaction to it is so amazingly funny. The man doesn’t just hate living a suburban life, he fucking despises it. This comes through due to the brilliance of Cage’s performance, which include a number of iconic movie freakouts.
One such scene features Jack and his family going shopping at a bland strip mall. To their credit, this is one of the few scenes that the Rat and his team imbue with some subtext, creating a mall interior that is staggering in its bleakness. At this point, Jack is growing incredibly restless with his stable but small life. He finally decides to throw a fit over an outrageously expensive suit in an attempt to recapture a bit of his old life as a Wall Street tycoon. “I’m sorry I was such a saint before and that I’m such a PRICK now!” he bellows at Kate, when she asks who he thinks he is. In moments like this, The Family Man literally roars to life, providing genuine laughs that may or may not be intended. Everything in this outburst, from the rapidity of his speech to his strangely theatrical hand gestures, is vintage Cage. It conveys a renegade spirit that typically would be absent from such standard studio fare.
These moments are fleeting though. The Family Man clearly views Campbell’s journey as a morality tale, with a clear, unquestionable destination. This lack of ambiguity is its downfall. The story’s obvious preference for his more modest life in the suburbs doesn’t work because it hasn’t established anything overly troubling about either reality. Both are, essentially, fine, which dilutes the significance of the story’s stakes. This makes the score by veteran composer Danny Elfman feel especially cheap and unearned. Coming off like a cannibalized amalgam of countless Burton film scores, the music’s dark, poignant nature is completely tone deaf to the film’s rather listless conclusion.
The plot’s direction also dilutes the crazed power of Cage’s performance as Campbell, forcing him to become little more than an earnest sad sack, who becomes even sadder when his alternate reality life is threatened. Even though this makes the film go out with a proverbial whisper, it doesn’t change how Cage’s work affects a majority of The Family Man. Watching it, you are reminded once again of the importance of good casting, and of how actors not only have the ability to improve a film but even save it from itself.