Returning guest writer Brian Rowe thinks back to the holiday season of 2000, takes on an underappreciated movie from that year and considers what it means to him today as he faces life’s crossroads. You can read more of his work at http://www.suite101.com/profile.cfm/brianrowe.

 

Of the last fifteen years, the period of time that I’ve been frequently going to the movies, my least favorite year of all was probably 2000. That seems to be the one year where more often than not movies simply stunk. There were a handful of gems, particularly toward the last few months of the year, but most of the spring and summer were filled with the stench of bombs and mediocrity.

In January 2001 I was the Arts & Entertainment Editor of my high school newspaper The Red & Blue. My main film article that month was my first-ever published top ten films list, and I wanted to pick ten movies that I really loved and that I thought others would enjoy, too. Of course the previous year it took great effort to dwindle the thirty-plus movies I loved that year down to a list of ten, but in 2000, it was a difficult task to put ten films on the list that I legitimately loved.

I remember most of the movies on that list. Some I have come to love even more ten years later — i.e. Almost Famous and Unbreakable. One I feel apathetic toward after all this time — the first X-Men. One I shake my head with incredulity that I included — Pay It Forward. And one I didn’t include because I didn’t see it until later in 2001 and would have, in retrospect, have put at the top of the list — Requiem For A Dream.

No, it wasn’t that great of a year. I mean, frickin’ Gladiator won Best Picture. And I know there’s a lot of people out there who hold that movie close to their hearts, but I never understood all the acclaim it received, even today. I still feel the best collaboration between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe was 2007’s American Gangster, and that everything else they’ve made together has been disappointing. Of course, I haven’t seen Body Of Lies, Robin Hood, or A Good Year. But, come on, do I really need to?

So I had to pick a film that for me represented the finest work of the year. I definitely got a few awkward glances over my choice, and, to this day, it remains probably the most critically maligned movie of all my best-of-the-year picks. And to make Christmas dinners upchuck from everyone’s mouths, there’s an even more distressful truth.

My pick for the best film of 2000 was directed by Brett Ratner.

That’s right. The guy who has such little vision that he’s been the go-to studio hire to helm such sequels as Red Dragon, Rush Hour 3, and X-Men: The Last Stand somehow made an emotionally heartfelt, utterly winning and charming movie that ten years later still remains one of my favorites of the last decade.

The Family Man seems like a middling end-of-year studio product that in six months should’ve been completely forgotten. It stars Nicolas Cage, who for the most part since winning his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas has sold his soul for fast paychecks to movies that aren’t just bad but entirely unwatchable. The movie’s directed by, let’s face it, kind of a hack, and the overall premise of the film promises an unintentionally hilarious “what-if” movie rip-off of It’s A Wonderful Life.

But the movie works. It’s not perfect, and it’s definitely not the work of a gifted auteur, but it’s hugely entertaining, charming, funny, romantic, and emotionally uplifting, and it features two enormously appealing performances by Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni.

An except from my initial review from December 2000…

“What if you made different choices? This question is the topic of Family Man, a brilliant film that makes you examine your life and pick out the things you’ve done that could’ve been different.

Family Man never ceases to come up with fresh ideas. It’s one of those great movies where you sit there for two hours and just stare at the screen.  This movie is fascinating because you can relate to the character of Jack, who in the beginning is obsessed with power and being rich.  Many feel that the goal in life is making lots of lots of money, but this movie makes you re-think that maybe family is a little more important.

Nicolas Cage delivers a virtuoso performance as Jack, a man who must come to terms with an entire new life, even having to meet new people and act as if he knows them already!  Here’s a test to show you how good he is in this film. After he wakes up in his new life, study his expressions for the next twenty minutes or so. He’s just in awe of what’s happening, and he pulls his performance off with great ease.

But the real showcase here is Tea Leoni, whose last movie was Deep Impact, and I believe she is worthy of an Oscar nomination.  She steals every scene she’s in, as you can’t help but feel sorry for her at the beginning of Jack’s new life, and you can’t help but smile with her as she becomes happier and more involved with Jack as the movie progresses.  She’s absolutely wonderful.

Family Man is a very entertaining and smart look at lives in general, filled with lots of humor and great performances all around.  See it with your family.”

Boy I liked delivering large amounts of cheese with my reviews back then. But, despite some of the more awkward sentences — “it’s one of those great movies where you sit there for two hours and just stare at the screen”?? — my appreciation and love for this film hasn’t depleted in all the years since it first came out.

What I love about the first act is that the successful businessman version of Jack Campbell isn’t a heartless asshole. He genuinely loves what he does and hasn’t a clue what an alternate life with kids and a wife would even be like. He smiles at his employees and doormen and wishes everyone, with a little sarcasm of course, a merry Christmas.

The long second act is the most fun because we get to watch with glee Jack try to make sense of an alternate reality where he has a wife and two kids and lives in a New Jersey suburb. It’s a delicate process in writing and directing this kind of material to make Jack’s transition from powerful womanizer in a suit to loving family man feel natural and authentic. There’s a lot of comedy throughout, like when he’s trying to change his son’s diaper and when he discovers what his small town job entails. But there are also a lot of powerful emotional moments, the most subtle being when Jack watches an old video of Jack singing to his wife. It’s funny for a while but then becomes heartbreaking when Jack realizes all these wonderful years he’s missed out on because of that choice he made to go to London.

And then there’s that third act which got the most critical bashing in all the reviews because to many, the movie doesn’t wrap up in a satisfactory way. I don’t know how others feel, but I think there’s really no other way for the film to end. Jack could’ve thrown himself off a bridge, but that probably wouldn’t have brought the film too many admirers. For Jack to have somehow stayed in the glimpse would have rang false, and for Jack to just accept his lonely life wouldn’t have worked either. There’s a happy median found in Jack’s reunion with Kate and that final monologue at the airport where Jack explains to her what he’s seen and what it means to him. I love movies, especially romantic ones, that don’t spell out everything at the end, that leave us wondering just what is going to happen to the characters. Before Sunset does it to great effect. So does The Family Man.

This movie is special to me for a few reasons. One, I’m a sucker for Christmas films, and it’s one of the best contemporary holiday-themed movies. I don’t watch it every Christmas by any means, but if it’s on TV or if I think of it, I definitely love to play it during the last month of the year. Two, the Tea Leoni performance. I feel like she hasn’t really had a vehicle before or since this movie to really demonstrate her warm film personality. She’s great in Flirting With Disaster and has her moments in Deep Impact, but really nothing has captured the essence of Leoni like this film does. She’s absolutely radiant throughout, motherly and loving and sexy and confident. To me this movie works as well as it does because of Leoni. Her chemistry with Cage is amazing, and her range of comedy and drama throughout is terrific, making me wonder why she hasn’t had a more significant career. There’s this scene toward the end where she tells her husband that while she prefers to stay in Jersey, she will move anywhere he needs to go because she loves him. “I choose us,” she says. It’s a scene that could’ve felt cloying in the words of almost any other actress. But Leoni makes it heartbreakingly truthful.

The main reason, however, this film rings true for me is that it brings forth one of the most startling things about life, other than that unavoidable truth that we and everyone we know and love will eventually die — decisions you make in life, some that can feel minor and not overly important, can affect the journey and outcome of the rest of your life. I think about choices I’ve made — pursuing journalism in high school instead of theatre, deciding on film school, choosing Loyola Marymount, studying abroad in Germany, coming out to my parents, working in casting, finally for once and for all writing that first novel. What you eat for breakfast probably won’t affect the rest of your life, but it might. Taking one job over another probably will. Moving to a new city most definitely will. And so on.

I’m in a crossroads in my life right now, with literally four paths I can take in the next six months. I’m weighing the pros and cons of all of them, and now, in December 2010, I honestly have no idea where I’ll be a year from now. I have big decisions to make. And I know it sounds corny, but when I think about important life decisions, my thoughts always revert back to The Family Man. Jack chose money over family, which led him to a successful life. But in the end he realized he had nothing without love in his life, and that married life in the end would have been the right choice. The route I choose to take in the next six months is most assuredly going to affect the rest of my life. I can hope, unlike Jack, I’ll take the right one.

Free-Floating Thoughts:

  • Wow, I still can’t believe I love a film directed by Brett Ratner.
  • It usually doesn’t work, but Tea Leoni’s long hair in the opening scene does actually make her look much younger! Nic Cage, on the other hand, looks exactly the same as the rest of the movie.
  • Cage’s blonde lover at the beginning looks like the same gal from What Lies Beneath. ‘Twas a busy year for her!
  • Oh crap, I forgot Jeremy Piven was in this.
  • Danny Elfman composed the music? I had no idea!
  • Ken Leung from Lost plays the role of Sam Wong, the Food Mart cashier.
  • Don Cheadle is a pretty inspired casting choice for the Angel.
  • The long shot that takes us into the alternate reality is well done without drawing too much attention to itself.
  • It’s nice to watch Jeremy Piven not play a total dick.
  • Kids can be annoying in movies. The girl who plays Cage’s daughter is natural and absolutely adorable in this.
  • Tea Leoni might not have ever made People’s 50 Most Beautiful People List, but she is particularly stunning in this film.
  • Hey, speaking of beautiful people, didn’t Miss Congeniality come out ten years ago this month, too? Here’s a shout-out to Sandra Bullock and all her wonderful pratfalls!
  • One of the great joys of the first half is watching Cage try to piece together the last thirteen years of the alternate universe.
  • Hey, it’s Bill Paxton’s friend from Big Love!
  • The one subplot that could be excised from the film is the almost affair Cage has with the other woman. It slows down the pace for a couple minutes and doesn’t go anywhere.
  • One of the most moving moments in the film is Cage watching himself on the video singing “La La La Means I love You” and seeing him realize all the happiness and joy he missed out in the last thirteen years.
  • As the film continues, and Cage becomes more and more comfortable in his new life, we almost forget that at some point this “glimpse” has to come to an end.
  • Leoni’s finest moment is her monologue telling Cage that she will move to New York City if it’s what he needs to be happy. She is so warm and emotionally devastating in this scene.
  • Danny Elfman’s score is subtle but really wonderful throughout the movie.
  • Robert Downey Sr “A Prince” plays the house-owner at the end. Umm… what?
  • When the glimpse is over and we move into the third act, there is the sense that there’s absolutely no way this movie can end well, but somehow… it does.
  • The shot of Cage running down the airport hall like Superman is a bit much.
  • Some don’t really buy Cage’s final monologue. Some find it cloying or too written. But I personally love it and feel like it’s the best and most necessary way to end the film.
  • Love that final shot!
  • All right, Brett Ratner. I’ll admit it. You’re not all bad.

 

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