If there is any theme that filmmakers love exploiting at Christmas, it is the theme of sudden realizations that one's life is empty, incomplete, or better than one gives it credit for. Reevaluating one's life is the 'it' thing to do at Christmas in fiction, and thematically it makes perfect sense. What other time of the year (besides Thanksgiving) is fully dedicated to encouraging family gatherings, giving and being thankful, and sharing love? Also, since it is the end of a year and close to the start of a new one, it fits with resolutions for the next year as well (The Clean Slate effect as I like to call it). Many many films are about appreciating life and making the 'right' choices regarding it. If Kevin McCallister hadn't realized that he both needs and loves his family, Home Alone loses it's point. If George Baily doesn't realize that his life is necessary to the survival of other people's lives, It's a Wonderful Life is merely a public service announcement for suicide and if Scrooge doesn't realize that his life is riddled with mistakes, then A Christmas Carol cannot effectively be dramatic. Such is the case with a Nicolas Cage film from 2000 that explored such ideas as not realizing that one's life is empty and that a better life is possible if one makes important sacrifices...and of course, all centered around the holiday season. So let's examine an alternate reality as we visit with The Family Man.
Jack Campbell, a single and wealthy Wall Street hot shot, thinks that he has it all. He is in the midst of putting together a billion dollar merger and has ordered an emergency meeting on Christmas day to ensure its success and he has no wishes to give up his life for love, family, or any of those sorts of mundane things. In his office on Christmas Eve, he is surprised to hear that his former girlfriend, Kate, tried to call him after many years. After reminiscing a bit, he walks into a convenience store where a lottery contestant, Cash, barges in saying that he has a winning ticket. The store clerk believes that Cash is lying and refuses to give him his winnings. Cash pulls out a gun and is about to shoot the clerk before Jack offers to buy the ticket from him, thus averting disaster. He and Cash settle their business deal outside and he arrogantly offers to help Cash before going to sleep in his penthouse. When Jack awakens on Christmas Day he is shocked to find that he is living in suburban New Jersey, married to Kate, and the father of two. Confused and bewildered, Jack rushes into New York City to find out what has gone wrong and finds that none of his work colleagues or friends recognize him. Running into Cash on the street (who is driving Jack's Ferrari), Cash explains that Jack is experiencing an alternate reality meant to teach him a lesson. Forced now to deal with family pressures and sell tires, Jack finds himself failing miserably at the job of husband and father...and yet, he comes to love and enjoy it. Will Jack decide that this is the life he wants to keep or will he choose to go back to the life he originally had?
The Family Man has the seeds of many famous and not so famous story ideas wrapped up inside of it. One one hand, it is very much like It's a Wonderful Life because it is about a man who experiences an alternate life to help him put his own life in perspective. On another, it is like A Christmas Carol because it is about a man who is selfish who is shown how to be a nicer and kinder man during the Christmas season. Either way, it is an oft-used story device where someone who isn't living 'correctly' is show how to do so through supernatural intervention. It isn't wholly original, but it does include a few very interesting wrinkles. For instance, in those other stories, people who had existed have disappeared or been destroyed because of the decisions a character has or is about to make. In The Family Man, Jack holds the life of his children in his hands because if he goes back to his old life, he eliminates them from ever existing. That's a lot of responsibility for a man. Also, it also poses the question that, if Jack decides to go back and fix these issues, is there any guarentee that Kate will still be interested? These elements make The Family Man a little more memorable and original than other variations on the same theme...but it doesn't elevate it to greatness either. It is simply a nice, enjoyable but ultimately forgettable film. I still enjoy watching it, but if you're going for a 'lesson learned at Christmas' theme...there are better places to look.