Must-See Movie Review: 'The Family Man' (2000)

Universal Pictures

 “The Family Man” is truly one of the best movies ever made, period. That is because it is one of those rare jewels that can sustain multiple viewings and constant scrutiny. Unlike “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the dream sequence is the heart of the entire story. Where the typical dream fare of cinema, lingers in a euphoric fantasy, this is a “glimpse” into a separate reality where life is challenging and honest.

On Christmas Eve preppy Wall Streeter, Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) goes to sleep solo in his New York penthouse after meeting an angel (Don Cheadle). When he wakes up, he is with his college sweetheart, Kate (TÊa Leoni), and “their two kids.” What might have been? Jack claims he never wondered, and yet he is about to find out as “The Family Man” unfolds.

Jack is pompous, conceited, and an incredibly likable snob, who does not pull a 180 overnight. It takes time for him to soak as the film’s timeline lasts from Christmas until Valentine’s Day. “The Family Man” acknowledges that it would take more than a day to change the mind of a man, whose heart has been in a deep freeze for decades.

There is no sad backstory as to why Jack is the way he is. He was simply born a capitalist who loves money, and “The Family Man” does not try to make you feel sorry for him. Nor does it make you dislike him. Jack is a lot of things. However, he is primarily an honest man, and that is the angle the film leverages its idealistic hopes for a positive outcome.

“The Family Man” acknowledges throughout its entire duration that Jack will always be Jack. He is still capable of having success. Jack will always be ambitious and discontented. Can he use that to benefit someone other than himself? That would mean him accepting his newfound family as an extension of himself. How and if he can achieve that is left more nebulous than typical studio productions are comfortable making it.

A scene where flirtatious housewife and neighbor, Evelyn (Lisa Thornhill), puts the moves on Jack is a benchmark moment for “The Family Man,” and what happens after is an exemplary display in cinematic reserve.

As much as some viewers may hope that Evelyn and Kate will have a fight or Kate will confront her, it does not happen. Evelyn's comeuppance is served in a uniquely innovative fashion that leaves the audience satisfied and with the film’s dignity well in-tact.

“The Family Man” performs a marvelous balancing act between comedy, drama, and fantasy. Among its most astonishing triumphs is managing to tell one of moviedom's ultimate love stories with Jack and Kate. Seeing a husband and wife (albeit in a dream state) portrayed to be in love, warts and all is an invigorating sight to behold.

Kate is a working mom. She is exhausted, funny, honest, and genuine. Kate is content in her life, and she works overtime to wear her various hats without complaining. The multi-millionaire Jack is understandably impressed.

As Jack falls back in love with Kate, she demonstrates a worthy mechanism for Jack's turnaround. “The Family Man” presents her as being Jack’s inevitability. The axis that he needs to thrive and not to survive.

Nicolas Cage and TÊa Leoni have never been better than they are in “The Family Man.” Cage begins his characterization with his signature bravado before simmering down to a more reserved and internally contemplative performance as Jack. Cage's delivery of the line: "My God, all this time, I never stopped loving you." is one of cinema's standard-bearers in romance.

Starring opposite Nicolas Cage is TÊa Leoni, who is the cornerstone of “The Family Man.” As Cage’s wild energy surges around her, she manages to ground him. TÊa Leoni's performance is vulnerable, raw, and devoid of any Hollywood glitz or Jane Cleaver-perfection. She portrays Kate as merely being real.

Some moments are so authentic between TÊa Leoni and Nicolas Cage that you almost feel like you are walking in on a private moment in suburbia. Yes, it is that good. From the night that Kate tells Jack the "kids are asleep" to their cake fight on the stairs, it is a human romance filled with flaws that make it all the more beautiful.

Also, setting “The Family Man” apart is the performance of Makenzie Vega as Kate and Jack’s daughter, Annie. Vega is the measure for all child performances, and she gives Shirley Temple a run for her money, as far as the talent of child actors goes.

Bright and precocious, Vega and Nicolas Cage work off of each other with innate ease. She is the daughter a couple like Jack and Kate would have, and “The Family Man” needs to prove its point. It makes sense that Jack would want to be a part of this fantasy family.

Rounding out the cast is Jeremy Piven as the good-hearted neighbor Arnie, who lives in awe of dreamworld Jack. He is also Jack's closest confidant. Piven’s vibrant storytelling monologues make everything before the cameras started rolling all the more convincing. There is not a poorly cast role in the entire film. From Don Cheadle as the intervening angel to every atmosphere artist, “The Family Man” is perfection.

As Jack Campbell learns more about who he can be, “The Family Man” already knows what it is. It is an existential journey into the possibility that someone’s destiny can be altered. No matter how finite that plan seems to be, or far into it, one might have drifted. Hence, the memorable line “I choose us” lingers as a mantra throughout most of its duration. However, there is no question “I choose” this film as a masterwork and a must-see movie.

Rating: 10/10

[Featured Image by 20th Century Fox]