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Reality Bites 

The Family Man explores the age-old question What if? but fails to bring any new perspective to it.

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Who hasn’t wondered about the path not chosen, about where you might have landed or what kind of life you might have carved out under different circumstances or given different choices?

The notion is hardly original, nor, unfortunately, is Brett Ratner’s new romantic comedy, which comes out just in time for the holiday season. It wants to be a sort of modern It’s a Wonderful Life. Ratner, director of Rush Hour, is a 30-year-old veteran of music videos who brings a similar surface treatment to the story of a stockbroker (Nicolas Cage) who has a holiday epiphany about what really matters in life.

Jack is regarded as incredibly successful by a culture that prizes acquisition. He can buy anything or have anything he wants, but his existence is marked by an undercurrent of emptiness. Predictably, he will discover that what he really longs for is not that shiny Ferrari or all the material trappings of success, but suburbia and a family. I don’t fault The Family Man’s premise of a hollow, though charming, man discovering the more important things in life, but Ratner’s overly sentimental film lacks the necessary subtlety and emotional depth to bring any new insight to the age-old “what would have happened if” theme.

In Jack’s case, that question is answered with “if only I had married my college girlfriend instead of moving to London for an internship with a hot firm.” At the airport in 1987, Jack and his girlfriend Kate (Téa Leoni) vow to reunite, but their lives inevitably take separate turns. Jack takes the internship and becomes a rising Wall Street star, while Kate is accepted to law school. When he kisses her goodbye at the terminal, he’s also kissing his alternate future goodbye.

Thirteen years later, while Jack is busy brokering a massive merger on Christmas Eve, he gets a call from Kate that stirs the pangs of regret. When he describes her to his secretary as “the woman I almost married,” the secretary is shocked. The idea of Jack married is inconceivable. He has the kind of blind ambition that makes him fault employees for wanting to get home to their families on Christmas Eve. He sleeps with his palm pilot, reads the stocks religiously, and lives in a spacious high-rise condo. His mantra is “I’ve got everything I need.”

But Jack is about to get a glimpse of another life. When he stops at a convenience store for the obligatory eggnog (his only concession to Christmas), he intervenes in a hold-up by making a shrewd business deal. He’ll pay the miscreant (Don Cheadle) $200 for his fake lotto ticket. Little does he realize that the armed stranger is going to change his life.

When Jack wakes up he’s—presto!—in bed with Kate, and a rambunctious 4-year-old is jumping on the bed begging to open presents. Jack’s been transported via the mysterious stranger to the big “What If.” Cheadle’s character shows up only twice more, once to give Jack a bicycle bell he can use to summon him, and the next time to take him from “his wonderful life” back to Wall Street. It’s an unnecessary plot device and a throwaway role that wastes the talented Cheadle.

Jack is temporarily stranded in suburbia, where he works at Big Ed’s Tires, drives a minivan, has an abysmal wardrobe and sleeps in flannel pajamas. It’s an existence that “feels like a permanent acid trip.” Naturally he’s resistant, pleading that it isn’t his real life. But before long he realizes that the best thing in his life is Kate, the down-home, no nonsense, firmly grounded wife and mother who makes a paltry income as a non-profit lawyer. Initially he thinks he can have it both ways, taking Kate out of this middle-class limbo with its snow blowers, bowling leagues and knockoff suits, to give her a “perfect life that other people envy.”

But The Family Man is a modern morality tale about getting back to what really matters—back to the truly good things in life. Leoni’s Kate is a sensible heroine, a girl-next-door whose freshness has far more appeal than the expected glamour. She’s a character who has her priorities straight. She’ll save Jack from his fast-track life, make him see the error of his ways and help him get in touch with his domestic self. She’s the better person who will make him a better person, the balm for his overarching ambition. She has become the great tamer of men, and Jack only heeds her call. They’ll live happily ever after, all ambition soothed, all desire squelched.

Ratner’s film makes this metamorphosis a sweet bit of fluff. It fails, however, where last year’s far more sophisticated Australian import, Me, Myself, I, succeeded. That film showed the complexity and dimension of its characters, while Ratner’s film takes the easier path, going for comic effect and relying heavily on Cage’s surprised confusion. Cage is definitely charming as Jack, almost too charming to be a cutthroat broker. He seems more at home in those old bowling shirts. Leoni, meanwhile, is completely believable as a product of suburbia. Together the two capture a playfulness that is refreshing on-screen, even though no real sparks ignite.

The Family Man is well-intentioned and has its moments, but don’t expect any flashes of new insight or any moving epiphanies. The biggest “What If” here is what if they’d come up with a new twist on this old theme.

The Family Man (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Brett Ratner. Starring Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni.

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