If holiday movies were presents under the Christmas tree, The Family Man would be your Aunt Ethel’s fruitcake: sickly sweet and hard to swallow. A would-be Yuletide heartwarmer in the "What if?" tradition of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, this overlong and under-imagined fable has little to offer beyond hackneyed life lessons and unearned sentiment.
Nicolas Cage is Jack Campbell, president of a high-powered Wall Street investment firm on the verge of brokering a corporate merger that will make him even richer than he already is. Though he’s prepared to make his lackeys work on Christmas Day to ensure the deal comes together, he’s not a total Scrooge; all his employees are going to be millionaires, too. Apparently, though, he’s close enough to Dickens for the celestial forces who go about dispensing seasonal justice in movies like this.
Enter Don Cheadle as Hollywood’s new favorite stock character, the Magical Black Man. Called "Cash" here, he’s Bagger Vance with dreadlocks and a gun, in the middle of holding up a convenience store when Jack intervenes. As a reward for his good deed, Cash grants Jack a "glimpse" of his life as it might have been if he hadn’t left his college sweetheart Kate (Tea Leoni) at the airport thirteen years earlier to pursue an internship in England. That Jack neither requests nor desires this glimpse is beside the point; he has the audacity to be successful, single and childless, after all, so he must be taught a lesson.
And so Jack awakens into a parallel universe, a bizarro version of his existence in which he has married Kate and family obligations have prevented him from reaching the financial heights to which he’s grown accustomed. Naturally, he’s horrified to find himself with a big house in the New Jersey suburbs, a wife who looks like Tea Leoni, and a couple of adorable children. Who wouldn’t be? Granted, he also has a job at his father-in-law’s tire shop, but it doesn’t appear to be an especially grueling line of work. This is a bogus dilemma in any case, a choice between being single and rich and being married and working class, but living like you’re rich anyway. But then, it’s never clear why Cash selects Jack in the first place. Why give a guy who’s already living a great life a glimpse of an alternate reality that’s also pretty good? Is this supposed to teach him a lesson? Why not plop Jack down in a trailer park, with a wife who looks like Ernest Borgnine and a kid who likes to start fires?
The most likely explanation is that director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) and screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman are hedging their bets. They’re willing to give Jack a yahoo best friend and bowling partner (Jeremy Piven, sadly underused) and a slutty neighbor who wants to sleep with him, but they can’t push too far in the direction of mocking the simple folk, lest they turn off the vast moviegoing audience in flyover country (you know, those red states you saw on election night). It’s quite a tightrope act – they manage to both pander and condescend to Middle America simultaneously.
Cage probably wouldn’t be such a dull and dispiriting screen presence these days if he hadn’t made such adventurous choices early in his career, but the damage is done. Here he gives a mix-and-match performance that draws from all the phases he’s gone through over the past few years: a little from Column A (watery-eyed puppy dog), a little from Column B (manic kook) and a lot from Column C (sleepwalking dullard). Leoni is much more game, but this isn’t her story. It’s all about Jack, and the resolution of his dilemma is insulting to every other character in the movie; they might as well not have bothered to show up. That goes for audiences as well.