Film Review: A Family Man

Cliché-ridden redemption story about an unscrupulous corporate go-getter who changes when his son is dying of cancer.
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Not to be confused with The Family Man, a 2000 film with Nicolas Cage awash in its own tropes and clichés, A Family Man, starring Gerard Butler (who also produced), is far worse and raises the question: Why was it made at all?

The shamelessly been-there-done-that screenplay by Bill Dubuque, marrying melodramatic soap opera with faith-based themes, tells us yet again that nothing cures a bastard like a child with cancer. Oscar Wilde was spot-on when he quipped, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” We can only imagine what he’d say about this pabulum that drags on for close to two hours and feels much longer.

Dane Jensen (Butler), an immoral, workaholic, alpha-male Chicago headhunter, is facing the fight of his professional life when his sadistic, demented boss (played with scenery-chewing glee by Willem Dafoe) who is also highly and improbably literate—citing Kafka’s love of Prague and his own “inner Jack Kerouac”—decides to travel abroad, thus leaving his whole recruitment operation in need of a successor. There’s no mystery here. It’ll either be Dane or his chief corporate competitor (Alison Brie), depending on who rolls up the largest commission during the boss’s month-long absence.

His adrenaline pumped and psyched to win at any cost, the unscrupulous Dane, among other machinations, impersonates an FBI agent at one point to put the kibosh on a client’s job prospects, thanks to the efforts of another agency that would earn the commission should the client be hired.

What makes the scheme especially vicious is that the job applicant in question (Alfred Molina) is allegedly a friend of Dane’s and, more serious, a 59-year-old who is simply viewed as unemployable because of his age, despite his superior track record and experience. He lands virtually no interviews at all and this one could easily be his last shot.

The ageism issue is the one interesting aspect of this film and Molina’s depiction of a beaten-down veteran trying hard to put on an optimistic face knowing full well that the odds are stacked against him is a master class in acting. But, alas, his role is small and ageism is barely a tangential topic here.

Instead, we’re treated to the increasingly ruthless Dane blindly forging ahead devoid of any fellow feeling for his colleagues, friends or even his family, including his beleaguered wife (Gretchen Mol) and three kids whom he rarely sees.

Admittedly, Dane sparks some sympathy when he accuses his complaining stay-at-home spouse that she wouldn’t have the comfortable lifestyle she does if it weren’t for him and that if she attempted to get a job her mommy skills would deservedly add up to nothing in the marketplace. We’re not supposed to empathize with him, but in this instance, gosh darn it, he’s right.

Either way, his life is turned upside-down when his youngest son Ryan (Max Jenkins) is diagnosed withacute lymphoblastic leukemia. The prognosis is not good. Early rounds of chemotherapy don’t work. No spoiler alert necessary here. It’s pretty obvious where this thing is headed even before Ryan asks his Indian oncologist, Doctor Singh (Anupam Kher), to tell him something about his religion and the good physician sagely explains, “What goes around comes around.” Aha. (He probably also believes everything happens for a reason.)

Still, Ryan slips into a coma and is on life support. He is dying and a desperate Dane begs the cosmic powers-that-be to save Ryan’s life, striking deals with the gods, propitiating them at every turn, promising to change his ways if only they’ll cure Ryan. And he delivers—hey, this is a redemption story—finally doing the moral thing, at great professional cost and sacrifice.

Directed by first-timer Mark Williams, the film is slick and certainly pretty to look at. The scenes of Chicago could serve as a travelogue. As usual, the acting towers above the material. One notable scene features Mol visiting her son’s school and losing it when she sees his desk piled up with other students’ miscellany, as if he’s not coming back. It’s nicely done.

As for Butler, he gives it his best shot. Still, this one can be skipped.

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