The first of Nicolas Cage’s The Something Man trilogy, this film has no Spongebobs of regret, or bee-arded ladies. It’s lacking in spectacle, but thankfully also lacking the nasty cynicism of The Weather Man and the ludicrous misogyny of The Wicker Man.
Instead, it has a sentimental Christmas storyline, adorable pie-faced children, and a comforting predictability that means it doesn’t matter if you fall asleep towards the end (I did).
As the film’s tagline amusingly puts it,
“A fast-lane investment broker, offered the opportunity to see how the other half lives, wakes up to find that his sports car and girlfriend have become a mini-van and wife”.
Something about the way this is phrased makes me think that the sports car turns into his wife, like some kind of Cinderella pumpkin deal, but sadly that’s not the case. Way back in ’88, Cage’s character Jack Campbell went into investment banking instead of staying with his girlfriend (Téa Leoni) and now is an equipped, capable, connected alpha-man who sings arias to his suit and tie of a morning. When he gets landed in the life that could have been, he finds to his horror that alternative-him is a goofy and lovable bowling enthusiast who works in a car showroom and seems to share a circle of clueless but loyal dude friends with his namesake Jack Singer from Honeymoon in Vegas.
The whole switcheroo begins because Cage’s character tells a black man who is robbing a corner-shop at gun-point that he ‘has everything he needs in the world’. When Cage wakes up in his new life, and blunders around, confused and in tracksuit bottoms outside his former office, it is this man who takes him for a ride around the block, and explains that this experience is comeuppance for his pride:
‘But how…?’ you and Cage wonder simultaneously, as the man suggests that Jack is not the first to have this experience.
‘I’ll explain everything’ replies the man in the car with a reassuring smile, ‘Just get out and we’ll go for a walk and I’ll tell you what’s going on, how about that?’
‘Yes please, that would be nice’, reply the audience and Cage meekly, but no! – it was a trick – he drives off and neither Jack nor the viewer will ever know the mysterious man’s reasons for rehabilitating capitalist swine through the medium of alternative universes. Perhaps it would have been wiser to have given no explanation at all for the shenanigans (see Groundhog Day, 1993) rather than confusingly presenting it as a magical lesson about the values of family from your friendly neighbourhood mugger. If nothing else, it would have avoided getting the film represented on TV Tropes.
But anyhow, all of this is not what the film is about. The film is about family. But what are family? Family are the people who dance adorably in the shower, demand chocolate milkshakes and pee, laughingly, in your face while you’re trying to change their nappy. They are your mothers, your sisters, your cousins, your children, your family pets, your buds, your bros. The film posits that a life without a family is not a life worth living. Try as you might to pin little paper arms to the sides of Benjamin Franklin on a $100 bill, money cannot give you a hug. As such, this is probably not a film best watched while playing a single-player game of Monopoly in your Mayfair apartment, but a film to watch tucked up in bed with a loved one, as we did.
The film is competent enough to elicit the fuzzy feelings, but not remarkable enough to prompt life-changing decisions. Despite any wistful feelings the film stirred in me, I’m still working in a call-center and I doubt that many businessmen threw off their suits and ties and made embarrassing phone-calls to old sweethearts after the credits rolled. Perhaps this is due to the numerous compromises the screenplay allows Campbell, undermining its integrity a notch. Not only does Campbell get to keep the woman of his dreams, he also gets to keep his job as a high-powered executive. Admittedly, the two adorable children of the alternate reality are disappeared into the ether once Campbell is returned to his own reality – prompting the question as to whether they go on living in some time and space unknown to us or are spirited away like a forgotten thought experiment. Makes you think!
It would be a shame though if the children were just dust in a sun beam as they’re a cute couple of grubs! Technically, they’re a triple of grubs, since youngest child Josh is played by twin brothers, Jake and Ryan Milkovich, two pudgy cherubs who surely caught their first break in a painting by Botticelli. Older sister Annie (Makenzie Vega) is also endearing and the interactions between her and Cage are remarkably unstilted… while Vega’s clearly a talented young actress, I am also reminded by interviews with Cage’s co-actors over the years where they speak of how accommodating he is on set and the lack of distance he places between himself and the less experienced actors. As Campbell’s initial wariness gives way to affection, Vega and Cage act off each other in a way which I found charming and convincing. I also liked that Annie thought that Campbell was an alien who had replaced her father. That’s the kind of thing I believed when I was little! “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one they said… until they come!”
Cage plays the role appropriately low-key, a fact testified to by the fact that the only meme produced by the film is a mediocre animation involving Cage demanding cake, which has to date received a pitiful 2 million views. This is all to the good, mind, as the film hinges on relationships, not merely a central performance. Leoni is chipper and sexy when not harangued and though we don’t get to see much of her inner-life, she’s robust enough not to be just another manic pixie dream girl.
Critically the film has been compared to A Christmas Carol (2001 – dates differ but ’01 is Cage’s version) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) due to its festive didacticism through a what if? story-line. However, it is neither as phantasmagorical, nor its narrative as tight as its two peers and one wonders whether the Christmas time setting was tacked on in order to deliberately elicit the comparison. Still, you’d have to be a real hardnose to meet this film head-on with cynicism. It communicates a real enthusiasm for family which is schmaltzy but earnest and when you’re watching such a film deep in the arms of a loved one you meet it on its own terms.