Obviously inspired by "It's a Wonderful Life," with elements of both "A Christmas Carol" and "Quantum Leap" thrown in, "The Family Man" comes oh, so close to being a holiday family classic. Only a limp final act stands between this movie and artistic greatness; and a gratuitous nude scene unfortunately keeps "The Family Man" from being suitable for the whole family.
Nicholas Cage takes a second crack at Frank Capra territory (after the underrated "It Could Happen to You") as Jack Campbell, a high flying Wall Street investment banker. He is so isolated from family concerns that he has his staff working on Christmas day to complete a big deal.
But when Jack steps in to stop a dangerous situation in a convenience store on Christmas Eve, the man he confronts turns out to be an angel called Cash (Don Cheadle) who goes around giving people chances to shine in bad or tempting situations.
When Jack says he has everything he needs, Cash puts Jack in touch with the one thing that is lacking in his life-- a family. Call him the Ghost of Christmas Could'a Been-- Jack wakes up in bed next to his college girlfriend, Kate (Tia Leoni) and finds himself married, with two kids, and living in the Jersey suburbs!
As Jack freaks out, his wife rolls her eyes and thinks he's going through another I-coulda-been-a-contender-for-billionaire funk; but his six year old daughter is pretty sure this isn't the father he appears to be. In a terrific scene, she strikes a deal with what she is sure is an alien who is acting as her father's double: she will show him the ropes of life on Earth-- or at least Jersey-- if he promises her father will eventually be returned safely.
Of course, Jack connects with Kate (who wouldn't?), but he's already left her once in his real life to pursue his high-flying career. It is being a father that finally transforms him into a giving person.
Cage and Leoni are really terrific here. Cage's patented slow burn that suddenly erupts into lots of hand gestures and emphatic rapid speech is perfect here. Leoni has far more down to earth charm than her previous quirkier roles have allowed her to show. Together, they also generate lots of romantic chemistry.
"The Family Man" is predictable, but very enjoyable, with charm to spare, some really big laughs, and some decent points to make-- though director Brett Ratner seems to be still trying to make them, long after we are already sold on his basic philosophical premise.
The tension point of the movie is that we know the new life has to end-- or does it? Jack is dreading the reappearance of Cash. The way it is all resolved is evidence that the screenwriting team, David Diamond & David Weissman, just ran out of ideas.
To be fair, they had enough to fill a standard sized movie-- it's good for about an hour and 45 minutes-- but this runs for just over 2 hours, and the rushed final act is flat and a bit of a cheat.
But despite the weak resolution, when this movie is edited for television, it will take care of most of the obstacles to family enjoyment; and "The Family Man" will undoubtedly run alongside "A Christmas Story" on cable stations around the Christmas season for years to come as a staple of the Season.