Mensch Warmers

Another midlife-crisis seizure courtesy of the spawning tribe of teary-eyed, silk-suited daddies who occupy the hills of Santa Monica, Brett Ratner's The Family Man plays like fallout from the stock market downturn—once the portfolios begin correcting, you'd better have a house full of kids to sulk back to. The rigged debate between single, affluent workaholism and breeder-burb orthodoxy centers on smug Manhattan megabroker Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage), who, once he's beset by Don Cheadle's vaguely defined, Capraesque Ghost of Christmas Other, wakes up in Jersey married to a woman (Téa Leoni) he left 13 years earlier, plus two kids, a dog, and a lousy job selling tires. Ripped off wholesale from this year's Rachel Griffiths import Me Myself I, Ratner's movie inexorably bulldozes toward the moment when Jack, after the requisite struggle with diapers, dog walking, middle-class income, and toddler communication, realizes rapture as the titular mensch.

Trolling singles should therefore beware, however useful the movie might be as a Bromo-Seltzer in answer to American Beauty's still beloved antisuburban bean gas. The screenplay helplessly writes itself into a corner, but there are a surprising number of mitigating tonic-shots amid the treacle: The Wall Street- bazooka lifestyle is derided largely for its glib materialism, not its unreproductive freedoms; the filmmakers know a potent parental jolt (stroking a sleeping child's hair, etc.) when they see one. Cage returns halfheartedly to form: Jack's transition to Mr. Minivan has its raving Vampire's Kiss-ish moments. A single shot of Cage, sitting in the dark fending off sleep because he knows he'll wake up in that barren apartment alone, is haunting enough to make the whole movie feel chilling when it means to be warm. It's an easier movie to tolerate than it should be if, like me, you're in love with Téa Leoni, who, as a lithe, lusty, strangely patient firecracker Superwife in a shag, rescues the movie from the tar pit of irrelevance. With some decent lines, she could be the new Myrna Loy.


Details

The Family Man
Directed by Brett Ratner
Written by David Diamond and David Weissman
A Universal release
Opens December 25

Finding Forrester
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Mike Rich
A Columbia release

An Everlasting Piece
Directed by Barry Levinson
Written by Barry McEvoy
A DreamWorks release
Opens December 25

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Even more of a fixed fight, Gus Van Sant's Finding Forresterredoes Scent of a Womanby way of the Iowa Writers' Workshop—Good Will-ish 16-year-old savant Jamal (Rob Brown), who reads Kierkegaard and Joyce, meets up with hermitted, Pynchon/Salinger-like novelist legend William Forrester (Sean Connery, looking more like bearded Bea Arthur than ever) in his Bronx neighborhood. Jamal gets writing lessons, the old coot slowly learns to embrace life again, the old coot musters crusty bon mots, Jamal snaps 'em back—Mike Rich's script can't be eaten with a fork, you need a spoon. "You write your first draft with your heart!" the old Scots giant roars in pajama bottoms. "Punch the keys, for God's sake!"— as if Jamal were David Helfgott hammering out that Rachmaninoff concerto on his Royal standard. Read what you will into the fact that Mishima is on both characters' bookshelves, but the literary life is used as a built-in narcotic: Readers are made to feel dopily good about themselves, and meanwhile barely a word of Jamal's or Forrester's fulsomely praised prose is read or heard. The entire project, including an obligatory climactic writing competition where Forrester strides in and sets right the obligatory wrong perpetrated by an overweening hump of an English prof (F. Murray Abraham), hinges on Jamal's writing being "pungent!" but it could be brain-dead prattle for all we know. At times you can feel Van Sant trying to loosen the movie's windpipe-folding collar, but he doesn't get far, except with Busta Rhymes, as Jamal's gone-nowhere big brother, whose moments are so full of bounce and warmth they feel like invasions from the screen next door.


The homilies are late in coming in Barry Levinson's pleasant but trifling Belfast pratfall, An Everlasting Piece, but they come all the same: As in, friendship is more important than civil war, which is arguable on a few levels at least. Written by Irish nobody Barry McEvoy, Levinson's singsong farce starts with Colm (McEvoy) and George (Brian F. O'Byrne) as two hospital barbers—one Catholic, one Protestant—who decide to get rich by appropriating the North Irish monopoly on toupees after its owner, nicknamed the Scalper (Billy Connolly), goes certifiable. It's a sprightly, low-fiber comedy while the comedy lasts. Levinson knows how to make the minor characters matter, but the heroes are bland and the not-quite-screwball-enough tale becomes bogged in issues of loyalty, heading toward a face-down with the IRA and the Brit Army that is neither ponderous nor memorable.

 
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