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Wake up, it’s just a bad movie

by Kaori Shoji
The Family Man
Rating: * * Director: Brett Ratner Running time: 125 minutes Language: EnglishNow showing

This is Kafka’s nightmare scenario: One morning, a man wakes up and finds he’s turned into a giant bug. He must deal with the inner turmoil that follows. This is writer/director Brett Ratner’s scenario: One morning, a man wakes up to find himself in a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in New Jersey with two kids and a wife. He must deal with the inner turmoil that follows.

Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni in “The Family Man”

What’s happened to our nightmares? If Ratner took his story to Kafka, what would have been the response? Hopefully, a thwack over the nose with a rolled-up Eastern European newspaper.

“The Family Man” is one of those movies you can call a “Hollywood movie” without compunction, since every second thought during its two-hour duration is: “Oh geez, what a Hollywood movie.” The main characters are played with studied finesse by Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni, the set just drips with big budget, and the cinematography makes everyone look extra beautiful and prosperous. Not to mention the really nice story, which somehow recalls being in a theater with friends at age 13 pretending to barf every time someone on screen said or did something sincere and loving. During “Family Man,” I counted eight incidents where I had to refrain from pushing a forefinger into the mouth and rolling my eyes in mock agony.

“Family Man” is Ratner’s second film, following the enormous success of “Rush Hour” (in which Jackie Chan goes to L.A. to fight evil forces). In it, the 27-year-old wunderkind of American cinema reveals his insights about love, commitment and what real happiness means.

So here goes: Jack Campbell (Cage) is a Wall Street slick with everything a slick could ever want: big-shot job, designer suits, Ferrari, endless stream of one-night stands. He feels A-OK about everything until he runs into a black panhandler called Cash (Don Cheadle) on Christmas Eve and makes the fatal mistake of telling him so.

“You asked for it,” says Cash. “You brought this on yourself.”

Jack feels a vague uneasiness but shakes it off and goes to bed. In the morning, he wakes up next to Kate (Leoni), his old girlfriend from college whom he had ditched 13 years earlier for a banking career in London. He’s suddenly in another life, a life that could have been his had he married Kate, taken a job at her father’s tire store and spawned two adorable kids in the New Jersey ‘burbs.

Jack is royally pissed off. His car is now a minivan, he is forced to wear outfits that will invite groans from anyone not on their way to a bowling game, he must contend with diapers, day care, marital tiffs with Kate. But he must admit, she has matured into a loving and lovely woman. Kate went to a posh law school but turned into a dedicated, nonprofit lawyer who thinks her life in suburbia is “just fine.”

She says starry-eyed things like: “The one thing that’s certain in my life is us and that I love you.” (Excuse me while I extract my forefinger from my mouth.) As the weeks go by, Jack finds himself settling in. Then he realizes that it’s OK to sell tires, OK to crack unsophisticated jokes with his neighbor friends and never look forward to anything more extravagant than an extra piece of chocolate cake in the fridge. And just when he’s grown to care deeply about his family, Cash reappears. It’s time to go back.

“Family Man” is supposedly a “fantasy movie” but it feels more like two separate movies that both star Nicolas Cage and were accidentally stitched together in the editing room. Cage was on such a tight schedule that he had to skip back and forth between two sets and grew confused in the process (“So which picture is this again? Do I wear the Hugo Boss or the NYU sweat shirt?”) — hence the clueless expression that defines a large part of his performance.

Lucky him, however, since in both stories he gets to play someone fortunate, blessed, privileged. Of course, he doesn’t see it that way until the last 20 minutes — after he has made a lot of terrible complaints about family life in N.J. (“like a permanent bad acid trip!”) and sulked in the mall because Kate wouldn’t let him buy a $2,400 Italian suit.

What she should have done is thwack him over the nose with a rolled up Eastern European newspaper, which then turns him into a bug. That would have been a real fantasy movie.