Film Score: Danny Elfman Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Téa Leoni, Don Cheadle and Jeremy Piven
The Family Man was released in 2000 it wasn’t new either. But in the end that’s hardly the point. Screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman came up with a unique way to look at an old premise, turning It’s a Wonderful Life inside out in the process. Instead of a man who has a wonderful family and lots of friends seeing what their lives would be without him, this version has him rich and powerful like Potter and sticks him in a humble suburban existence to show him what is really important in life. The last man who would seem to be a likely candidate for directing this kind of film is Brett Ratner. Sure, he’d had a hit film, but Rush Hour’s over the top farce seems to have nothing to do with the kind of family friendly comedy-drama that “the two Davids” had written. The producers of the film thought the same thing. And yet Ratner was relentless in his pursuit of the picture, eventually worming his way into the director’s chair and being just as relentless about getting a reluctant Nicholas Cage to sign on. In looking at the final results, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone else could have handled this material with such a keen eye for exactly what it needed. Ratner’s direction is nearly flawless, and with a perfect cast and crew he ultimately created a new holiday classic to stand beside Capra’s original.
The film begins with Nicholas Cage and Téa Leoni at the airport saying goodbye. He’s going to London for a banking internship and suddenly she doesn’t want him to go, saying they should start their lives over, right then. But he leaves anyway. Flash forward thirteen years and Cage says goodbye in the morning to Amber Valletta after a passionate night together, before heading to the office as a rich investment banker who works for Josef Sommer. His secretary, Mary Beth Hurt, tells him that Leoni has called but he decides not to call her back and he stops in at a bodega on the way home. There he meets Don Cheadle looking like a gang banger, and is nearly killed as he tries to defuse a misunderstanding with the clerk over a lottery ticket. When Cheadle talks to Cage outside afterward and Cage says he has everything he needs, Cheadle laughs and says he’s going to enjoy what happens next. The next morning Cage wakes up on Christmas day in New Jersey, in bed with Leoni and now the parent of two children with her. After bolting out of the house and heading back to the city, no one knows who he is anymore. Then Cheadle turns up in his car as a wealthy businessman, and Cage learns that he’s some kind of angel who is giving him a glimpse of what life could have been like had he chosen a different path. And Cage can’t come back until he figures some things out.
At the center of the success of the film is the relationship between Nicholas Cage and Téa Leoni. They are terrific together. Cage is honest with her and it gets him nowhere, but later it becomes clear that his Jersey version made jokes like that all the time. Unable to go back to New York, he has no real choice but to settle in and see what happens. The young daughter, Makenzie Vega, is essential to the plot, seeing the new Cage as an alien and deciding to help him out by letting him know what he needs to do. This is terrific because it keep Don Cheadle’s role in a very specific category of being present only at the transitions from one reality to the other. Cheadle is terrific, playing three different roles as the angel. Jeremy Piven plays Jersey Cage’s best friend, and Harve Presnell is his father-in-law and owner of the tire store where Cage works. The other outstanding cast member is Lisa Thornhill, who wants to have an affair with Jersey Cage. Throughout, Nicholas Cage does a tremendous job of staying true to his character, dealing with life in New Jersey as best he can, but always trying to figure out a way to get back to New York. At the same time, it soon becomes obvious that the feelings he had for Téa Leoni didn’t go away just because he left her. The pull between those two things, his wealthy life in the city and his love for Leoni and their children, is the central conflict of the piece, and Bret Ratner does a magnificent job of making it all believable.
The film received a bunch of so-so reviews at the time from critics who apparently didn’t understand exactly what they were watching. The critic for the New York Times said Nicholas Cage was also miserable when he was rich. Wrong. And Roger Ebert said that Don Cheadle was a taxi driver. Way wrong. If reviewers can’t even remember simple plot points how are they going to accurately assess the brilliance of the screenplay and the way the director brought it to life? I would argue, they can’t. There’s something incredibly special about this film that has nothing to do with being a rehash of the Capra classic. Jimmy Stewart hated his life and wanted something different, not realizing that what he had was what he wanted all along. Nicholas Cage thinks he has everything he wants, but that’s only because he’s never experienced anything else. For Stewart the people around him are most important. For Cage it’s learning to want people around him. Ebert wondered at the end of his piece what happened to the Jersey family. But the answer was clearly on Cage’s face when he talks about them at the end of the film. It’s the same thing that happened to the protagonist’s daughter in Ken Grimwood’s Replay. They’re gone. Ultimately the film isn’t about looking backward and trying to recapture happiness from the past, it’s about going forward and capturing happiness for the future. And The Family Man does that beautifully.