The grand tradition of “what if?” movies from “A Christmas Carol” to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the more recent “Passions of Mind” and “Me Myself I” show us an unhappy hero or heroine who finds out what life would have been like if he or she had made a different choice. But in this version, Nicolas Cage plays Jack Campbell, a man who is perfectly delighted with his life the way it is. He loves money, making it on Wall Street and spending it on expensive suits, gourmet meals, and a snazzy sports car. He has an elegant, if somewhat sterile, apartment, decorated with expensive photographs of anonymous body parts. He doesn’t mind Scrooge-ily calling a meeting at the office on Christmas, telling himself it is for the employees’ own good, since they will be making so much money.
But then he stops to buy eggnog and sees a man (Don Cheadle) pull out a gun when a store clerk refuses to pay off his lottery ticket. His offer to buy the ticket mysteriously catapults him into the life he chose not to have — a life in the New Jersey suburbs, married to his college sweetheart (Tea Leoni), with two small children and a job selling tires. His old life has disappeared. It is his worst nightmare, and there will be many opportunities for him to be horrified by diapers and outlet store merchandise and completely deconstruct his old life before he begins to realize what he has missed.
Despite some predictability and some awkward construction — the movie feels as though it was edited heavily after focus group testing, leaving some characters and plot lines unresolved — the movie is a holiday pleasure. Cage and Leoni are enormously appealing in their various incarnations. There are some funny lines and warm moments, especially when the one person Jack cannot fool is his daughter, who knows this is not the Daddy she loves and decides he must be an alien. And there is a satisfying resolution that incorporates the best of both options.
Parents should know that the movie has some mature themes, including sexual references and situations. Jack is very nice to a woman he slept with, but it is clear that there is no intimacy between them. He and his wife start to have sex, but when he says something she finds inappropriate, she stops him. A woman suggests an affair, and Jack’s friend tells him that it would be disastrous: “Don’t screw up your whole life just because you’re a little unsure about who you are.” The movie does make it clear that loving, married sex is the ideal. Characters repeatedly turn to liquor to relieve stress, and a character makes a joke about his wife’s drinking. There is some strong language.
Families should talk about some of the “roads not taken” they still think about, and what they think their lives would be like now if they had made another choice. How do we make choices? What do we do when circumstances make choices for us? What do you think the angel will do for the young woman who accepted too much change?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Me Myself I.”