Movies about the evils of greed should always be taken with a grain of salt, not least when they are produced by major studios owned by multinational corporations. Lately Hollywood seems to be genuinely fascinated with how fragile our lives are, and how different they might be if we'd taken the road less (or more) traveled. And in the minds of movie executives, this has always meant imagining life beyond the bottom line.

The first sign that Universal Pictures' "Family Man" is one of these redemptive movies is that it is set on Christmas. A wealthy Wall Street businessman wakes up Christmas morning to find himself in a parallel universe -- real or imagined is never made clear -- where, instead of being single, successful, and stinking rich, he is a tire salesman of modest accomplishments who lives in a New Jersey suburb with his wife and kids. Initially horrified, he learns to like this other life, largely through the agency of his endearing parallel-world wife (Téa Leoni), who is prone to reminding him when he tells her they could have a life people envy, "They already do envy us."

There is nothing subtle about his transformation. Before plunking him down in the midst of snowy suburbia, the film goes out of its way to show that Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) is utterly consumed by wealth. He wears $2000 suits and drives a Ferrari to work, where, as an investment banker, he is overseeing one of the largest mergers in corporate history. As a one-night stand slips back into her dress, Jack is already tuning his tv to the stock market. When he schedules an emergency staff meeting on Christmas Day, Lassiter (Josef Sommer), his boss, smiles approvingly and calls him "a credit to capitalism."

Jack takes the long way to the meeting. Late on Christmas Eve, he intervenes in a convenience-store confrontation, as a gun-toting street punk named Cash (Don Cheadle) tries to claim some lottery winnings. If Cash is not an angel, he's something very much like one, popping up in various personae to test the character of individual humans. Standing on the sidewalk, with the lights in the distance arranged conspicuously in the shape of a cross, Jack offers to help Cash, who cries out, incredulously, "This man thinks I need to be saved, yo!" His eyes glimmering, Cash then hints, cryptically, that Jack is in for the most unusual lesson of his life.

The next morning, Jack wakes up to Kate, the college sweetheart he left behind at an airport 13 years before to pursue an internship at a London bank. With Kate come two children and a dog, and Kate's parents, who show up to celebrate Christmas with the family.

To its credit, "The Family Man" doesn't make business or family an absolute choice. One of Jack's colleagues, Alan Mintz (Saul Rubinek), who keeps the baby in a crib with him at work, oversees the merger that Jack worked so hard on back in real life. The film also takes subtle steps to prevent its adulation of suburban life from becoming too hallowed. A couple of Jack's neighbours toy with the possibility of adultery. When Jack gets back in with his old boss Lassiter, Kate tells Jack that being with him is "more important to me than our address."

"The Family Man" is the latest entry in a genre that traces its roots to the granddaddy of all holiday redemption tales, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," in which the miserly Scrooge learns the value of generosity after a ghost gives him a bleak glimpse of his future. In "It's a Wonderful Life," the selfless George Bailey has the opposite problem; he's so used to giving himself away that he fails to see the positive effect he has had until an angel shows him how miserable his friends and neighbours would have been if he had never existed. "The Family Man" has echoes of both stories.

"The Family Man" also fits quite comfortably in the ranks of films of the last few years that have explored the role of chance and choice in shaping our identities. In "Sliding Doors" and "Run Lola Run," the simple act of running down a staircase sends a woman's fate spinning in different directions. "Lola" even gave us flash-forward glimpses of the various fates awaiting innocent bystanders: the suicidal junkie in one life might become devoutly religious in another.

Another film from this year, "Frequency" argued that our lives are built not on a single decisive moment, but on many decisions: By dipping into the past and saving his father from dying in a fire, a man also inadvertently saves a serial killer. The rest of the film follows father and son's attempts to stop the killer.

The best of the genre may have been the least noticed -- and the most like the film "The Family Man" could have been. "Me Myself I," an Australian film, stars Rachel Griffiths as Pamela, a lonely, award-winning journalist who wonders if she made a mistake by turning down a marriage proposal years before. One day, while fleeing a street evangelist, Pamela is hit by a car, and the driver turns out to be an alternate version of herself, the one who accepted the proposal and went on to become a married mother of three.

Married Pamela takes Single Pamela home, then vanishes, leaving Single Pamela to figure out the exhausting intricacies of motherhood all on her own. As in "Family Man", the only person who can tell there's been a switch is a young child who asks when the real parent is coming back.

Both films revolve around the choice of career over family, but "Me Myself I" strikes a better balance between the two. As time goes by, Single Pamela discovers that Married Pamela's marriage had been on the verge of collapse. And just as Single Pamela has been living Married Pamela's life, Married Pamela has been living in Single Pamela's world. Both women needed to see how things would have been if they had made a different choice, and both of their choices are affirmed by showing that the obstacles to happiness in both can be overcome.

Not so poor Jack Campbell. Ambiguity isn't Hollywood's flavor these days, and so the audience is given the impression that Married Jack has led a basically blissful life, while Single Jack is a smug, hollow fellow who desperately needs a spiritual tune-up. Married Jack, in other words, feels too good to be true. Most telling is the poster for "Family Man," which puts Married Jack's family in a store display window. Everyone wants to buy the perfect life, but who's selling?

Merry Christmas.

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