Wednesday, November 16, 2016

THE FAMILY MAN: Blu-ray (Universal/Beacon/Saturn 2000) Universal Home Video

Nicholas Cage is Jack Campbell; a Wall Street fat cat, shown the error of his capitalist greed in director Brett Ratner’s misguided and thoroughly convoluted Christmas clunker, The Family Guy (2000). In America, at least so I thought, it gets inculcated at a very early age that to be considered ‘successful’ in life is synonymous with having money in the bank – lots of it. But Ratner’s movie is cribbing from another adage; ‘it’s lonely at the top’…or is it?!? Jack Campbell is a guy who has scaled the highest peak of the Mount Buddha of business. Moreover, he has relished every carabiner used to pull himself up to the summit. Problem/cliché #1: Jack Campbell is not a very likeable fellow. Problem/cliché #2: this isn’t ‘It’s a Wonderful Life!’ Ratner’s movie isn’t awful. It’s just not very good. Alas, for a Christmas movie, the lack of goodness proves eventually lethal, or at the very least, utterly displeasing.  It isn’t the sentimentality that gets in the way of the proverbial ‘feel good’, or the tinny Beatles-inspired/wafer-thin moralizing weathervane that vaguely suggests ‘all you need is love’ to neatly fit the pieces of life’s puzzle together is an oversimplification of the time-honored ‘love conquers all’ fairytale.
It is David Diamond and David Weissman’s screenplay simply does not make any sense; either of the ‘common/garden variety’ ilk or in the ‘clever-clever movie land’ tradition from whence real ‘reel’ celluloid art and magic of the teachable, fun and frothy kind is born. The picture’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life-esque’ premise starts off with a colossal misfire: Don Cheadle as Cash. What is Cash? Certainly not an angel, though perhaps not Satan’s disciple either. Classify him then as a ridiculous ‘fallen seraph’ or messenger with a Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders liberalized agenda. Yep, this movie is going to get Jack Campbell to pay his ‘fair share’.  If Cash is ‘heaven sent’ then it really makes no sense for his debut to be as a jacked and jive-talkin’/gun-toting convenience store robber; even more illogically reconstituted as a clean-cut convenience store clerk later on. In between, Cash takes possession of Jack’s beloved Ferrari, baiting this befuddled ‘fish out of water’ with dishonest misdirection and promises to explain the real purpose for being taught his ‘lesson’; only to drive off, leaving poor Jack even more frazzled than before and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Worse, the Diamond/Weissman screenplay repeatedly introduces us to characters who are supposed to add up to something better - even something more (Jeremy Piven’s bowler/best friend, Arnie; Harve Presnell’s ‘big’ and brash Ed Reynolds; Lisa Thornhill’s town slut, Evelyn Thompson, etc. et al) but actually serve only as the most superficial purposes in Screenwriting 101 – remedially to connect the dots for Jack with all points illustrating what a colossal waste of time his life thus far has been. Alas, here is the critical point to be addressed.
The Jack Campbell we initially meet in The Family Man is a guy who has zero compunction about openly lying to his tear-stained gal pal, Kate Reynolds (Téa Leoni), taking the coward’s way out of their very clingy relationship by flying off to a foreign country (supposedly for an internship); then, virtually ignoring Kate for the next thirteen years. As far as gross pigs go, Jack’s dude sings Rigoletto’s La donna è mobile like a break-dancing rooster with laryngitis, while he struts in his undies to an ego almost the size of his fashionable Manhattan penthouse. Jack could make love to his Ferrari if only his lips were not permanently sewn to his own ass. But Jack Campbell is an enterprising man of high finance - if low scruples - as he goads and guides his executive brain trust through a thoroughly dishonest billion dollar merger, ordering it should take precedent over all their family-orientated holiday plans. This is Jack Campbell. More to the point, it is also the man he wants to be. ‘Arrogant prick’ just suits him to a tee. He really likes the perks of this lifestyle and himself, arguably, far too much. Personally, I can respect that. Not every man born has either the ambitions or the temperament to be a mentoring father figure, nor should every woman be forced into carrying that little sack of colic and diaper rash to term. Being open and honest about what you want from life has merit too. We all do not wish for the same things. And Jack has what he wants – money, position, and a bevy of haughty and hot, disposable playthings to satisfy whenever his much-prized, though equally as criticized male initiative kicks in for a little badinage on the side.
The Family Man presents itself as a big and fuzzy Christmas morality play. The only problem here is it’s not. The characters inhabiting this cinema space are about as notoriously unlikable as one might expect. And thrusting Jack Campbell into the thick of an alternate reality where everyone else ‘thinks’ he should be, does not ingratiate us to either their bullying or Jack’s thoroughly awkward assimilation, resulting in some very painful transitions along the way. The proof that a grotesque error in judgment has been made on Jack’s behalf, is played out in several scenes, most pointedly when the horny Evelyn Thompson lays all her cards (and everything but herself) on the table, offering our (choke!) hero more than a 'come hither' glance Jack is all set to take advantage of, merely to escape his nightmarish fantasy – or rather, revert back to his former self. Here is a guy who repeatedly carps at and puts down the overly compassionate Kate; a man would rather drop $2500 on a designer suit than spend his time sharing a funnel cake with his kids in the food court of his local shopping mall (the adorable Mackenzie Vega as Annie, and virtual nondescript twin brothers, Jake and Ryan Milkovich as baby Josh), and, at every turn, disdainfully frowns upon the middle-class New Jersians who are supposed to be his friends (in this prolonged flashback/flash forward?!? – more on this in just a moment) as though they were a sect of Midwich morons, lacking class, ambition or even the good sense God gave a lemon.
So, let us be honest here: Jack Campbell would prefer to bang the town whore rather than work on maintaining his marital fidelity to Kate; a catastrophe narrowly averted by Arnie’s two-for-a-nickel, simple-minded declaration to Jack that every guy they know “would give his left nut to be with Kate”. Oh, so nice girls really do finish first…hmmm.  It would have meant so much more to the denouement of The Family Man if the Jack Campbell we first met was a lonely, wounded and friendless businessman who, having clawed his way to the top in corporate America, suddenly realized the path not taken was the one he should have all along and now pines for, and daydreams about, with fond rose-colored memories of what might have been. But our Jack Campbell has not given Kate Reynolds even a glimmer of thought in all these thirteen years. And her spontaneous contacting him now, leaving a message with his secretary, Adelle (played with pert resolve by the underused Mary Beth Hurt) that Jack quite comfortably choses to continue to ignore, tells us all we need to know about Jack Campbell, and, Jack and Kate’s relationship. It died in an airport terminal thirteen years ago. Get over it.
I have yet to discuss the ‘flashback/flash forward’ framing device of this story because in doing so whatever effervescence The Family Man had until now virtually crumbles to dust. Consider that the Kate Reynolds Jack Campbell dumps at the beginning of this movie is a PTA/soccer mom in the making; just a girl who desperately wants a guy she can snuggle next to on a cold winter’s night. But the Kate Reynolds we meet at the end of the picture – the one presumably drawn from reality, has since hardened into exactly the sort of go-getting/power-broker Jack Campbell would easily have taken to bed, if not to wife. Alas, between these bookends Jack has experienced his own epiphany; dallied too long in the Twilight Zone alternate reality supposedly running concurrent with his own; Kate, a non-profit attorney contented to live in Jersey – geographically, a stone’s throw from Manhattan, but status-wise as different as pomegranates to Cadillacs. In the denouement, these roles are reversed: Jack newly enriched with acquired paternal warmth, chasing after this forthright single gal now decidedly out of his league and who prefers the ooh-la-la of France to family gatherings around the fire. So too consider, thirteen years have lapsed between the Kate Reynolds Jack remembers (and the one he spent a few months with in this ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ labyrinth) and the one he is now given a second opportunity to woo. Hence, the window of opportunity for Jack and Kate to create the adorable Annie and Josh has long since past. So, the kids we met were only doppelgängers of possible offspring this couple may or may not have had should they now decide to procreate for the future. Huh?!?
The Family Man begins with a flashback: Jack Campbell leaving a teary-eyed Kate Reynolds at the airport as he prepares to go off to London, England for his college internship. Flash forward: we meet Jack again, thirteen years later as as a well-heeled exec’ extraordinaire putting together a billion dollar deal for his boss, Peter Lassiter (Josef Sommer); the cognac-drinking ‘dark angel’ of Wall Street. What me worry, it’s Christmas Eve. Jack has kept his executive war council way past five; using ‘reverse humiliation’ tactics to browbeat his second in command, Alan Minz (Saul Rubinek). We get the hint. Jack has no family, hence no need for sugarplum fairies and shiny presents beneath a tree. He likes money – period. Dismissing everyone for the evening, while conspiring with his secretary, Adele to organize an ‘emergency’ meeting late Christmas Day, Jack decides to stop off at a local convenience store for a carton of eggnog; regrettably, the last bit of ‘peace on earth’ he will experience for quite some time. For now we meet Cash, a lottery contestant reportedly possessing the winning ticket worth $238 dollars. Suspecting him to be a fraud, the clerk behind the counter orders Cash from the shop. Cash retaliates by pulling out a revolver and flashing it around in a threatening manner. To diffuse the situation, Jack offers to buy the ticket from Cash for $250. Miraculously, Cash accepts; but then orders Jack to accompany him outside.  
In one of the most empty-headed vignettes in the picture, Jack offers Cash some big-hearted ‘advice’ on how to turn his life around. Cash is amused by Jack’s misguided sense of philanthropy. He questions Jack’s life; Jack insisting he has everything he could possibly want. Cash suspects this is a lie, cryptically adding “Oh, I am going to enjoy this!” Unaware he has just had his own divine intervention, Jack retires to his penthouse apartment.  However, when he awakens the next morning he is not in his own bed…or is he? Yep; only not the one he could have ever imagined for himself; lying next to Kate in a cluttered and modest bedroom: his 'daughter', Annie barging in with the family dog to declare “it’s Christmas!” What is this?!?  Bewildered in the extreme, Jack repeatedly attempts to explain he does not belong here. He is not a husband or a father, whizzing past his in-laws, Big Ed and Lorraine (Francine York), driving the ‘family van’ into the city, only to be denied access to both his penthouse and his place of business by Tony, the doorman (John O’Donohue) and Frank (Daniel Whitner), a security guard, who clearly do not recognize him.
Cash pulls up, looking very dapper in Jack's beloved Ferrari. And although Cash gives Jack a thumbnail sketch of the reasons for his ‘experiencing this glimpse into an alternate reality’, he really does not provide Jack with much more to go on before driving away and leaving him to figure things out on his own. It will not be easy. Forced to reconsider, Jack begins the very rough assimilation into this life he has never known as Big Ed’s most profitable car tire salesman with Kate as his non-profit lawyer/wife. The rest of this prolonged flashback is devoted to Jack’s complete ineptitude in domestic situations; his thorough inability to fit in with the local yokels who are supposed to be his friends.  Given Jack’s adversity, it is a real wonder no one suspects anything is terribly wrong – except the perceptive Annie, who believes Jack to be an alien surrogate for her ‘real dad’ who has been taken away to ‘the mother ship’ for an undisclosed time. We meet Jack’s best friend, Arnie; also, Evelyn Thompson, who is hot for Jack and openly offers up herself as his plaything on the side. Jack is seriously thinking about it until Arnie shoots down his daydreams with a distinct note of thorough disgust. Why choose Evelyn when Kate is so perfect? Ah, perhaps because Jack is not perfect himself, and does not consider Kate a perfect fit for him either. Jack forgets his anniversary, valiantly making amends by ushering Kate off to an exclusive restaurant in the city.   
From this moment on, Jack will slowly begin to fall in love with Kate all over again. Alas, he is not about to give up on chasing after his dream of rebuilding the life he once had. In a moment of too-too precocious kismet, Peter Lassiter gets a flat tire outside Big Ed’s tire emporium. Jack ingratiates himself to Lassiter, talking business and encouraging his former boss to reconsider the deal his new point man, Alan Minz has put together. It is not the best it could be, and Jack points to ways it can be improved before the ink has dried on the dotted line. Lassiter is impressed and invites Jack back to work on a contract basis. This incurs Minz’s ire as he, in Jack’s absence, has become a nervous little prick, not above threatening Jack with outright dismissal should his initial grandstanding prove a disaster for the company.  Jack is pleasantly amused by Minz’s giddy bravado. Frankly, Jack did not think Alan had it in him. Later, Jack takes Kate into the city to the private apartment Lassiter’s firm uses to woo new clientele and business partners. Jack offers Kate a vision of what their lives could be in this lap of luxury. Money to spare and private schools for the kids. But she outwardly rejects Jack’s master plans to move their family into the city.
Sometime later, Kate reconsiders, informing Jack whatever he wants she will do because unlike him, she chooses “us” over herself. Alas, at exactly the moment when Jack is all set to realize the real value of his new life, Cash reappears; this time, as a convenience store clerk. The epiphany is at an end and when Jack goes to sleep tonight he will awaken in his old life. Aside: this just seems like a very cruel joke. Jack is understandably incensed. “You can’t just play around with lives like that,” he begrudgingly suggest, “There are kids involved!” Alas, the next morning Jack does indeed wake up between the comfortable satin sheets in his penthouse apartment – very much alone. Racing to his office, Jack is informed by a frantic Minz that their billion dollar merger is about to go sour unless Jack can fly out immediately to Colorado to schmooze the prospective client into reconsidering. Jack agrees, but then has a change of heart; asking Adele for Kate’s telephone number. Arriving at the address as given, Jack discovers Kate in the throes of packing to leave posthaste for Paris; a decision made to further her own highly lucrative law career. Kate only contacted Jack to return a box of ‘his stuff’ she has been saving these past thirteen years. Exactly why Kate would have held on to her ex’s personal effects for so long is a mystery, as this new Kate Reynolds does not particularly strike the first time viewer as being the ‘sentimental type’.
Jack implores Kate to delay her flight to Paris so they can catch up on old times. However, as far is Kate is concerned, there is virtually nothing left to say. She bids Jack farewell with only passing words of encouragement to look her up if ever he is in France. Jack departs for the airport, presumably to catch his plane for Colorado. However, at the last possible moment he races to the terminal where Kate is preparing to board her flight. He regales Kate with snippets of the life he has shared with her in his imaginary flashback. And although none of these memories are, in fact, true to her own they somehow resonate with Kate now as she slowly hesitates to leave. In the penultimate moments of our story Jack and Kate are seen catching up on old times inside the airport terminal as a quiet snow falls outside; the inference, that they are somehow bound for a reconciliation and destined to ‘become’ the couple from Jack’s fantasy encounter, left rather open-ended.   
The Family Man is a mess of contradictions; some outlined in this review, others best left for the first-time viewer to encounter and contemplate on their own. It should be noted the acting throughout is uniformly mediocre; Nicholas Cage, a not altogether prepossessing or heroically romantic figure. He does not quite fit into the steely-eyed/Armani-wearing tycoon mold and yet also has considerable difficulties convincing us gray flannel jogging pants and cotton tees suit him better. Téa Leoni finds her character more easily in its dowdy reincarnation. The rest of the cast offer little more than marginal support – competent, if underwhelming. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is easy on the eyes; contrasting the cool and aloof, big cityscape with the more intimate Jersey byways and snow-covered neighborhoods; Danny Elfman’s score contributing a handsomely structured addendum that helps provide a musical bridge between the epic chasms in plot structure.  Regrets, but I sincerely could not get myself worked into a frothy ‘feel good’ for The Family Man; an ounce of miscalculation adding up to a whole lot of nothin’ in the end. If the Diamond/Weissman scenario is attempting to teach ‘a lesson’ then I’ll be darned what it is, except to suggest some people only think they are happy when in actuality they are miserable without knowing it. Whatever happened to free will? Hmmm. Better question: whatever became of the well-tailored holiday flick? Want to be enriched by a Christmas-themed ‘what if?’ with a moral to teach and oodles of charm to spare. Then watch It’s a Wonderful Life and forget The Family Man. The former is a diamond in a Capra-corn Tiffany setting; the latter, cubic zirconia with virtually no resale value. It occasionally offers something for the head (left scratching), but absolutely nothing for the heart (decidedly left wanting). Regrets.  
Ditto for Universal Home Video’s uninspired Blu-ray release. While black levels are strong, colors are decidedly weak to downright muddy and dull. Flesh tones are piggy pinkish in spots and ruddy orange in others. While the image is free of age-related dirt and scratches, fine detail here is practically non-existent. I suspect someone has been tinkering with the DNR at Universal again; a homogenized ‘smoothness’ creeping in and creating very blocky image quality, particularly noticeable in establishing long and medium shots.  Instead of providing razor-sharp clarity to all the bric-a-brac cluttering Jack and Kate’s Jersey homestead, everything simply registers as indistinct to slightly out of focus and very nondescript and occasionally distracting nothingness.  We cannot, as example, see any noticeable textures in the granite and glass facades of the Manhattan skyline, or even appreciate the distinctions in the metal sheen of Jack’s silver Ferrari. Even more disappointing: edge enhancement has been applied – not liberally, but occasionally, with very obvious negative results. The snowy Jersey landscapes are just white rather than exhibiting all sorts of subtly nuanced cool color grading. Bottom line: cinematographer, Dante Spinotti’s anamorphic widescreen photography is disappointingly transferred to hi-def. The DTS 5.1 audio is, in a word, unimpressive. Honestly, it sounds more like a 5.1 Dolby Digital with everything pretty much in mid-register; lacking bass and perhaps a bit too front-orientated besides. Extras are limited to a few outtakes, deleted scenes and some promo junkets thrown in; a music video, alternate score, with Elfman contributing his own commentary. Bottom line: pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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