When it comes to Christmas-themed films, as with Christmas-themed music, my instincts tend to favor the traditional, the time-tested. For instance, It’s a Wonderful Life and Scrooge (Alistair Sims’ 1951 version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) rank among my favorites. Maureen O’Hara’s original Miracle on 34th Street is another that easily bears repeated, even annual, viewings in my world.
That doesn’t mean some of Hollywood’s modern Christmastime efforts can’t find a place in my heart. Like just about everyone else, I think Elf delights — if only because it officially confirms it’s possible for Will Ferrell to make a hilarious movie without every third joke being about sexual organs or naughty words. (I confess, I also enjoyed 1994’s unnecessary and little noticed — but competently rendered — remake of Miracle on 34th Street.)
Speaking of “little noticed”, how about this pair of twenty-first-century holiday flicks which, for me, are becoming must-sees every November/December season. No, they’re not “classics”, may never achieve that status, but I found them definitively worthwhile. Perhaps others will, likewise? Hope so.
1) Family Man, starring Nicholas Cage and Téa Leoni, is a terrific movie — and deserves to become a December standard. Seems like it only did so-so at the box office, which is regrettable because more people should have seen it eighteen years ago — and should take a gander now that it occasionally makes the small screen’s Christmastime rotation.
Cage plays Jack Campbell, high-flying, hard-charging, hard-living, somewhat hard-hearted financier — so single-focused he stays late at the office Christmas Eve and expects fellow employees to do the same. Not exactly Ebenezer Scrooge, mind you; more a shallow, workaholic libertine with nothing of much enduring value in his existence. An eldritch turn-of-events involving a gun-wielding thug and quart of eggnog hurls him into a dreamy, supernatural (?) episode which causes him to re-evaluate his life and the course it might have taken had he opted to go one way instead of another years previously.
Yes, à la those vintage films mentioned above, it’s well-trod plot material for a holiday offering. I’ll concede Dickens and Frank Capra and Company will likely never be bested on that score. That said, Family Man massages familiar tropes into a winsome, entertaining — and ultimately heart-tugging — final product.
I’m reminded watching this film how talented Nick Cage is. It’s become trendy to mock him and, truth told, he’s recently cranked out a bunch of turkeys (pardon the season-friendly pun); one crummy, just-trying-to-make-a-paycheck production after another the last decade or so. Meanwhile, he’s also shone in a number of superior films over the course of a variegated career — Family Man, unarguably, one of them.
Cage nails the role of a guy thrown into a bizarre, fantastical situation who has to somehow negotiate his way through it. Contrary to the stereotype, his performance is not over-the-top, not cartoony. He gets it just right. Bluntly, people who mock Nick Cage and say he can’t act have never watched this movie. Or even just its penultimate scene — a piercing confrontation in a bustling airport on December 25th afternoon which changes everything. He’s spellbinding here. His voice cracks poignantly at one point — and it’s as good as anything you’d ever see from Olivier or DeNiro or Day Lewis. This is great stuff from an elevating, meaningful movie that will deepen your Christmas experience.
By the way, Téa Leoni does an effective job as well, persuasively capturing the role of a smart but good-natured, down-to-earth suburbanite wife and mom who’s trying to make her marriage and family work. All the way around, the players in Family Man get it done.
Spoiler alert: Unsurprisingly, particularly for a plot-line bracketed by Christmas Day, the film ends on a sweet, hopeful note. Obviously, we’re supposed to assume that, after the credits roll, the reacquainted couple goes on to make a run at a continuing relationship.
But, as with the rest of Family Man, the narrative doesn’t bang us over the head with that conclusion. The “lessons” in this holiday feature are clichéd, sure enough — but presented engagingly, imaginatively and, whatever the time of year, in desperate need of constant reiteration anyway. Don’t forget, some ideas become story-line platitudes for a reason: they happen to echo truth: What matters most? Of what does a fulfilled life really consist? Do our choices genuinely make a difference?
Family Man prompts those reflections.
I really love this movie.
Note: This PG-13 drama contains a dose of completely superfluous profanity or five; and there’s a brief segment at movie’s beginning which establishes that, yes, Cage’s protagonist is a womanizer. It’s handled with comparative taste; still, heads up.
2) One Christmas season of yore, my brother emailed me he’d just viewed, and been impressed with, Vince Vaughan’s Fred Claus. Not being a particular devotee of the movie’s headliner – like the aforementioned Mr. Ferrell, Vaughan’s body of work has tended toward the crass and coarse – you could have colored me skeptical.
Well, silly ol’, jumping-to-conclusions me!
I tuned in to this preposterous flick about the jolly old fat-man’s no-account elder sibling … and was gratified — and moved — by what I discovered. Maybe it’s because I grew up with four brothers? Or because I have two adopted sons? (Both topics treated enchantingly amidst Fred Claus ’s rampant goofiness). Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for an affecting third-reel montage featuring beaming children and “Silent Night”?
Okay, I admit – as farcical and sometimes frivolous as is this film, I find myself choking up during its final ten minutes; every time. The tale of the healing of a family’s centuries-long dysfunction gets me. The redemptive themes – including one involving Kevin Spacey (!) — get me.
A scene involving Stephen Baldwin, Roger Clinton and Frank Stallone (note those last names) supplies a key, eyes-opened, light-goes-on, change-of-heart moment of revelation for Vaughan’s “Fred”. It plays a tad awkwardly, pretty much plugged into the film out of nowhere, without warning — but it’s refreshingly clever and amusing.
And Paul Giamatti as Santa. ‘Nuff said.
Candidly, the final moments of Fred Claus rescue this comedy from status as mere, throwaway, ho-ho-ho romp into something downright edifying. Its gift-wrapped message to audiences? This Christmas season, why not reconsider that family or relational estrangement you’ve allowed to simmer too long? Don’t you think it’s time to address that soul-wound that’s been gnawing at you your whole life?
Fundamental issues. From a Vince Vaughan cinematic vehicle?
Yep — not a few of them priorities of the One named in this holiday’s first six letters.
Prove me wrong. Watch both these films. Merry Christmas.
Images: Screen Shots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lp6ibYQN8vQ; and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNisotSt0jc
Note: This column has been edited since first posting.