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"Family Man" serves up a modern twist on Charles Dickens by way of Frank Capra, but not much else.

Not-So-Wonderful a Life

You know, I truly wanted to embrace this film. Really. Honestly. I mean in the spirit of the holiday, a nice, sweet fantasy of what if would be heartwarming. But you see, I have this dark little secret: I'm not a big fan of "It's a Wonderful Life." I know what you're thinking and I agree. How can I not like the inspiring story of George Bailey, the richest man in Bedford Falls? How can I not grow teary-eyed at his personal journey and epiphany as he learns just how wonderful a life he has as a small-town husband and father? While I can appreciate the lesson in Capra's take, I must admit I'm a bigger fan of the original Christmas Eve sojourner, Dickens' Scrooge. In this umpteenth retelling, the Scrooge/George Bailey character is a Wall Street trader named Jack Campbell, played by Nicolas Cage. Living the high life, he's got his people working late Christmas Eve in preparation for a megamerger set to hit just after the holiday. His minions are grumbling, but Jack is supercharged. So jazzed, he decides to walk home instead of driving his Ferrari the three or four blocks. As fate would have it, Jack wanders into a convenience store to snag a carton of eggnog. That seemingly random act triggers his encounter with guardian angel of sorts Don Cheadle. The next thing Jack knows, he's waking up in bed with his college sweetheart (Tea Leoni) in their two-story home in Teaneck, N.J., with his daughter begging to go see what Santa left. Whoa! Cage's Jack is in shock. This in not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife! As you would expect, Jack wants out of this alternative suburban universe, where he spends his days selling tires — retail! Oh yes, every plot development in "The Family Man" is telegraphed well ahead of its appearance, and whenever there's a chance to explore something interesting about Jack's situation, the director and screenwriters opt to gloss over it. Instead of letting us see Jack try to finesse his way through a day attempting to be a tire salesman, for example, we get to see Jack react to his toddler son's poopie diaper, as well as the ubiquitous surprise that always comes when a neophyte diaper-changer encounters a baby boy. The only one who figures out something's amiss is one of Jack's kids, a precocious 6-year-old who, for no other reason than upping the "cuteness" factor, talks like a 2-year-old. Written by David Diamond (of Ice-T/Alyssa Milano thriller "Below Utopia" fame) and David Weissman (responsible for "Dream a Little Dream 2"), "The Family Man" takes the time to introduce secondary characters and issues only to leave them unresolved. The worst example is when we're introduced to Jack's chubby buddy who's supposed to be having triple bypass surgery the day after Christmas, but is shown bowling instead? Either director Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour") can't handle the simple basics of storytelling, or the studio sent in last-minute editors to change the movie when test audiences were reaching for their coats instead of their hankies. Leoni is the acting standout here, stealing every scene she's in with convincing honesty. Never for a moment do we doubt that she's not immensely satisfied and fulfilled in her role as a pro-bono lawyer, wife and mother of two. Sassy, spunky and sweet, she remains the only believable reason why Jack would choose messy suburban middle class over life in the fast lane. While it's terrific to see Cage tackle a role that's neither dark and brooding nor a cartoonish action hero, he never seems at home — at home. Which is why this wannabe heart-warmer left me cold. The filmmakers wildly misjudged today's socioeconomic beliefs. Given the choice between the two worlds Ratner and his screenwriters crafted, I'm thinking contemporary audiences would choose the big-bucks lifestyle over the messy, middle-class mayhem. Why else would game shows like "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" be so popular? Instant riches are the rule these days, and a hackneyed attempt to set the world's heart straight isn't going to make much of a dent. For those who enjoy overlong, sappy, uninspired holiday movies where the outcome is never in doubt, "The Family Man" will fill the bill. Bah, humbug; I wanted a little more heart and a lot more soul.

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