Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching.
Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing? With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.
I already know what you’re thinking: Really? This? Out of all the Christmas movies out there, you choose a by-the-book family drama from the creative mind of Brett Ratner? Respecting The Cage is one thing. This is pure travesty.
You’re right. Brett Ratner is pure travesty, but The Family Man is a Christmas movie. Its quality, now that remains up for debate.
Ever seen It’s A Wonderful Life? Who hasn’t! The Family Man sits in that territory, except the everyman is Nicolas Cage and “Clarence” is Don Cheadle as a weird post-modern fairy godfather. Frank Capra’s classic also shows Jimmy Stewart what life might look like without him. Ratner doesn’t delve as deeply nor skillfully, but he’s plenty serviceable at making some existential headway in the life of one Scroogey businessman.
Jack Campbell (Cage) is one of New York City’s most successful businessmen, and his secret is privileging work over everything else. That means no wife, no children, even a late office night on Christmas Eve. That Scrooge comparison starting to become obvious yet? Cage isn’t uttering “humbugs” but he seems to think his wealthy bachelor lifestyle and a fanciful mistress are all he’ll ever need. And that’s where the real magic comes in.
I’m far from the predominant RAYCESSSS whistleblower, but it’s amazing how little Hollywood has moved on from milking the udder of wizened black men. Cheadle, credited simply as “Cash,” plays a wish-granting guardian who gives Cage a “glimpse” of what life might’ve been like had he not left behind his college girlfriend (Téa Leoni). It’s clear that Cage’s hubris, which he slathers on in thick amounts, is the reason for Cheadle to do what he does. Beyond that though… the details are hazy. Is Cheadle an angel? A wizard? Is Cage just having a gnarly acid flashback? It’s never exactly explained, and probably for the best. The Family Man cares about the “what ifs,” not simple, boring plot questions like “how?” or “why?”
When Cage wakes up in his alternate timeline, he immediately freaks out. Understandable, considering his impressive wardrobe, Ferrari, and financial assets have all vanished in place of a bafflingly well-aged Leoni, their two children, and a mini-van. Cage, completely unaware of what the F is going on, bolts out of his smaller, messier bed and speeds down to his would-be office building only to find nobody from his past life knows who the hell he is. Penthouse? He doesn’t rent there. By the time Cheadle Fairy shows up and explains everything, half of Christmas Day is already over, a point Leoni makes to rip him over when he eventually returns home. HOW COULD YOU ABANDON YOUR FAKE FAMILY LIKE THAT?
Wait just a minute.
Of course, Cage’s newly-acquired family doesn’t know what’s going on (well, sorta), but in the real context of being transported to a completely different course of your life, isn’t Cage’s breakdown understandable? Leoni chews him out for skipping out on the family’s Christmas celebration, for missing the look on his daughter’s face when she sees her new bike. But none of these people are his actual family, and the lesson Cheadle Fairy wants Cage to learn isn’t even close to being realized. Dealing in metaphor and hypothetical is already tricky, even without framing an entire film around it.
Now on the subject of Cage’s daughter, Davids Diamond and Weissman introduce a terrible cop-out to their “what if” scenario. Though it’s never explained whether she looked into Cage’s eyes and “didn’t see Dad” or if she actually talked with Cheadle’s fairy godfather, Annie Campbell discovers Cage as this “transported man” of sorts and proceeds to help him keep up the charade. It’s bad enough Cage is never truly tested as a corporate fish out o’ water — he adapts to tire sales overnight, immediately halts his lascivious ways, and quickly rekindles his romance with Leoni. The additional help of an “insider” just makes Cage’s transformation into Husband Numero Uno seem like fate rather than elected through choice. And doesn’t getting out of the work defeat Cheadle’s point?
I mentioned that The Family Man, regardless of your reservations, is in fact a Christmas movie. For starters, there’s lots of egg nog: a party bowl full of it, and a mistress with the prospect of drenching herself in the stuff. There’s also the magical life-changing snowfall on Christmas Eve. Diamond and Weissman never shout yuletide greetings at the audience, but as we’ve discovered in, well every film so far this series, Christmas movies care less about symbolic or religious meaning as much as they stretch nostalgia over traditional family values. And the thrust of The Family Man simply breaks down to:
Family > Money
Nothing revelatory, sure, but is the American lower middle class Cage rolls around in really this humble geyser of wisdom and virtue? In returning to their actual timelines, should Cage and Leoni shirk divergent/successful career paths at the random prospect of giving it another shot? When Cage tracks down his lost paramour, she’s packing up and moving to head up an office in Paris. Of course. But true love doesn’t stop there. Cage follows Leoni to her freaking ticket gate, proceeding to yell to her about this imagined family they have (had? could have had?) together. Predictably, the ploy works on Leoni, although it’s about as tactless as that Ross and Rachel finale, and a lot creepier.
Really, Leoni should have left for Paris, and I’ll argue this even outside the vacuum of Hollywood romance. After abandoning their relationship for an internship in London, after abandoning Leoni, why does Cage get off the hook? You wanted to have a family with me? You should’ve appreciated it when you had the chance, you indecisive bastard. BOOM. Knuckle punch to the throat of Christmas niceties. Diamond and Weissman would never go that route. It’s far too dour, even if they could’ve laid off some of the schmaltzier lines: You look like you haven’t seen me in twelve years. Barf.
Amazingly, Leoni and Cage manage to not seem like complete idiots when saying this stuff, especially The Cage who packs in big emotions when the script demands it, even if his interpretation is a bit too large. Far and away The Family Man’s Cage-iest moments follow the man around as he slowly realizes his life on Christmas morning isn’t what it was but twelve hours before. YouTube dropped the ball on that one, so we’ll have to settle for the opening credits, which detail the booming decadence of Cage’s business mogul. Cage plays bachelor Jack Campbell as a ruthless but cultured shark, jacking up the volume when necessary, and turning it down for playful elevator flirtation. And now, a little Verdi:
The Family Man is by no means a quality Christmas film, but Cage’s not-so-subtle acting choices almost double for Campbell’s own predicament; he’s a cacophonous actor in a sea of quiet nuance. Cheadle’s “what if” scenario is certainly entertaining for a while, but its moral center and the implications of the whole ordeal are more bothersome than heartwarming. After all, Cage and Leoni’s alternate timeline family doesn’t technically exist anymore. Which means Cheadle technically birthed and then… un-birthed two children for the sole purpose of teaching one smug aristocrat a lesson. Yeah, definitely don’t think about this one too much.
Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie
Way #2: The Santa Clause
Way #3: Die Hard
Way #4: Bad Santa
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Want more Cage? You got it.