Gall In The Family

Sentenced To Suburbia, Nicholas Cage Makes A Poor 'Family Man.'

Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is more than just a great Christmas movie. It's a great movie. It's dark, moody, unsettling and ultimately pessimistic. Somehow, that seems to escape most viewers (as I'm sure Capra intended), who instead see it as a life-affirming, pro-family film.

It's been remade in various forms a number of times, but none of the remakes was more perverse and pointless than the latest, Family Man, a film that seems to think that it's clever by virtue of having simply reversed the basic plot of It's a Wonderful Life.

In Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, who gave up his dreams of fortune and world travel to stay in his small town, raise kids and take on the family business. When he loses thousands of dollars, he sinks into despair, and an angel appears and shows him what the world would have been like if he'd never been born. He then learns about the value of life and the importance of his community, but he also sees that there's no possibility of realizing his dreams. Instead of an ideal world, he's stuck with a difficult reality that, at best, is a consolation prize in the game of life.

In Family Man, Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage, who's kind of a Jimmy Stewart on steroids and Xanax) left behind the possibility of small-town family life in order to travel the world and amass a large fortune. As he's about to close a deal that will make him billions of dollars, an angel appears to him and forces him to live out his life as though he had long ago renounced his dreams of wealth and had, instead, stayed with his college sweetheart (played by the bland but fetching Tea Leone) and gone into the family business.

Of course, losing his closet full of Armani suits and his steady supply of bimbos is a little hard on him, but, in a shocking surprise twist, he finds that he actually likes some things about family life, and that kids and the suburbs are, gosh darn it, kinda rewarding. Well, mostly he learns that if he had just married Kate (his college sweetheart), she would not only have kept her figure, but she would have become even hotter.

Thus, a lot of his experience of the suburbs involves getting it on with his stunningly beautiful wife. I'm not exactly sure what lesson the angel was trying to teach him here, but if it was "Marry the young hot ones," Jack seems to have learned it. If it was "Family is important even if your wife doesn't look like a supermodel," then he's probably going to get an F on the exam.

Director Brett Ratner balances out the sex with lots of shots of Jack and Kate's cute kids. He even does the egregious "filling the entire screen with a cute kid face" shot, a manipulative trick that is so dangerous it was actually outlawed in Bosnia before the war. The manipulative use of the cute ones is compounded by having Jack's 6-year-old daughter act as his guide in his new life. Basically, as Jack has just been plunged into this alternate reality, he's at a bit of a loss, so young Cuterina or Cuterella or whatever her name is has to help him out. The stock Hollywood image of the child who possesses more wisdom than the adult in no way becomes so grating that you keep hoping for an enormous alien to burst out of her chest.

There's an all-over Hollywood nastiness to this film in its portrayal of the suburbs. Everyone is dressed in some tacky parody of suburban attire, they all drive the most obnoxious SUVs imaginable, and they all bowl. It's clear that the director has never been to the suburbs and is basing his ideas of it on 1950s sitcoms and Chevy Chase movies. Still, in spite of this ridiculous stereotyping of suburban behavior, we're supposed to imagine that it's in some way preferable to the glamorous world of wealth and taste that Jack knew in his previous existence.

This just doesn't fly ... the 'burbs never seem to be anything but horrible, Jack's old life retains its look of glamour, and when he decides that he actually prefers something about the family life, it's hard to see just what that is.

Although, perhaps one could give the film the benefit of the doubt and say that there's an ambiguity to it that is reminiscent of Capra's ambiguous It's A Wonderful Life. Still, even if that is true, Capra's film has one big advantage over Family Man: It doesn't suck.

Family Man opens Friday at Foothills (742-6174), Century Gateway (792-9000), Century El Con (202-3343) Century Park (620-0750) and DeAnza drive-in (745-2240).

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