Just as the advent of the Savior at Christmastime did not eliminate the consequences of human sin and foolishness but opened a new way forward, so too the vision of Jack Campbell in “The Family Man” does not change his wasted last thirteen years but opens up the possibility of a very different future for him. In theological language, these unearned gifts are called “grace.”

It’s not well known, but Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life was not a hit success when it came out in 1946. Though it received five Academy Award nominations, it had mixed reviews from the critics and was a box-office failure. It didn’t even break even financially. It achieved the status of classic only when it began to be shown on television around Christmas.

Some people think Capra’s classic is popular because it is sentimental, but it is likely that the movie’s initial negative reception was due to the darkness of its portrayal of the difficulties of life and bitterness. Jimmy Stewart’s powerful portrayal of darkness and anger as George Bailey was often not quite acting. A veteran of many bombing missions during World War II, he was probably suffering from what we call post-traumatic stress disorder. In any case, he not only doubted his acting abilities but doubted whether acting did anything for anybody. Stewart pulled out of his bleakness when Lionel Barrymore, who played the villainous Potter, asked him if he thought entertaining people was better than dropping bombs on them. We should be grateful (at least in the artistic outcome) that Stewart didn’t perk up too much, for it is the sense we have of his desperation and anger that make the film noteworthy. It is an emotional realism that matches the moral realism of the film. Doing good is costly. The one who does the right things and sacrifices himself will indeed find himself at times lamenting the opportunities he has lost and the resources he does not have when he is attacked by the unscrupulous. The joy at the end is not sentimental mush but George Bailey’s realization that his sacrifices, though costly, were rewarded in ways he could not fully comprehend even after his strange vision.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of a film that will, I believe, have a similar trajectory from its initial reception a so-so mediocrity (53% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes). The Family Man stars Nicholas Cage as Jack Campbell and Tea Leoni as Kate Reynolds. The movie opens in 1987 with Kate offering a tearful good-bye at the airport as Jack prepares to board a plane for a year-long internship with Barclays bank in London. Kate pleads with him to stay due to her fear that the relationship will not last.

He goes to London anyway and the next scene is thirteen years later in Jack’s very rich penthouse apartment in New York City. The viewer glances a woman with her back to the camera pulling on her clothes. Is it Kate? She turns around and it is a different woman who is about to depart. She and Jack exchange some sexual banter and then she leaves, telling him, “It was nice to meet you.” We see that Jack’s love, which he had promised to Kate in the airport long ago, has not been replaced by love for any other.

The next scene of Jack entering an enormous walk-in closet full of extraordinary clothes while singing opera and then speeding off to work in a Ferrari is meant to show that his internship with Barclays has yielded a career of extraordinary financial success. He is now a Wall Street executive who is orchestrating a merger in the billions—on Christmas Eve! Jack is brought up short by a message his secretary hands him from Kate, trying to contact him. Peter Lassiter (Josef Sommer), the chairman of the company, tells him that old girlfriends are like tax documents: after three years, get rid of them and forget them.

On the way back to his penthouse Jack stops in a convenience store. A young man called Cash (Don Cheadle) comes in with what he claims is a winning lottery ticket worth $238. The Chinese-American cashier believes it is a fake and refuses to look at it. When Cash pulls a pistol, Jack intervenes, offering to pay the man $200 upfront for the ticket. Cash walks outside with him and compliments him on his heroism. Jack attempts to convince the man that there is help for him to get out of a violent life. Cash laughs at him and asks what is missing in his life. To Jack’s answer that there is nothing missing, Cash observes that Jack should remember that he has “brought this on [him]self.”

Jack goes home to bed. When he wakes up the camera is directly over his face, slowly panning out to show that there is a woman who is sleeping with her head on his chest. As she wakes up, he and the audience discover that it is Kate Reynolds—with shorter hair. Jack’s dismay grows as a little girl comes in with a baby boy in her arms and calls him Daddy. It is Christmas morning but he is in an alternate reality where he married Kate and they are living in—horror of horrors!—New Jersey. As Jack gets up and gets dressed, Kate grabs his lapels and says, “Coffee—strong coffee.”

After an amusing attempt to return to his New York City residence and his office building (nobody knows who he is and he is not president of the company), Jack encounters Cash driving in his Ferrari, or at least one just like his. Cash explains that he has been privileged to receive a “glimpse.” Like the famed Clarence of George Bailey’s tale, Cash seems to be an angel, though his words about his role are oblique and he will not be accompanying Jack. Instead, Jack will have to “figure it out.”

Jack makes his way back to New Jersey to a furious but glad-that-he’s-alive Kate. What makes the story much more than the critics could see is the way in which the alternate-reality Jack must have indeed felt the sacrifices he made in settling down to family life. His explanations to the alternate-reality Kate about how he doesn’t really belong here are met with the exasperation of a wife who has heard a speech like this a hundred times.

Some critics judged that the film showed a despising of ordinary middle-class life in its depictions of schlubby figures doing things like bowling and having amusingly tacky man-caves. One complained that Jack is never shown discovering that non-$2400 suits or sweaters can be perfectly comfortable and fine. It is not an accurate assessment, for Jack does come to relish even the somewhat tacky ties he wears as an employee of his father-in-law’s tire company. But he also does not forget what it was like to eat gourmet food, drive a Ferrari instead of a minivan, and wear very fine clothing. That Jack would have had a taste for such things even in his alternate reality, where a stint at E.F. Hutton had ended when Jack left to help run the New Jersey tire sales company because of his father-in-law’s heart troubles, is certain. The sacrifices were real.

And yet the alternate reality would not have been without its own interests. A neighbor named Evelyn (Lisa Thornhill) reveals that she has been flirting with Jack for years—she is obviously attracted to Jack because of his charm but also his adoring relationship with Kate. More important than such flattering temptations is the reality of family life. His alternate-reality little girl, Annie (Makenzie Vega), knows that this man is not really her father—she thinks he is an alien substituted for him—but is willing to help him understand what her father would do till the aliens return him. The baby Josh (Jake and Ryan Milkovich) presents to Jack the ickiness of diapers but also the joy of the child who does not yet speak in words but who speaks nonetheless. Most important, life with Kate holds out the possibility of a relationship with a woman who is talented, competent, and sexy. Alas, one mistake of this PG-13 film is showing a naked Kate showering through a misty shower door—the intent was to show that Jack’s intimacies would be as exciting as his actual playboy existence, but it is still a mistake. If you have not seen the movie yet, stop reading here for spoilers shall appear.

Through a chance encounter with Peter Lassiter, Jack gets an opportunity to go to work for his old company. He tries to convince Kate to move to New York City again, but she argues that their life as they have it is a really good one. Jack is persuaded by this alternate reality. The next morning Kate sees him playing in the snow with Annie—who is now certain that her father has returned. Jack’s transformation into the man he could have become is complete.

Jack again encounters Cash, this time as the cashier in the local convenience store. He explains to an angry Jack that he must go back to his real life—that this was only a glimpse, by definition something impermanent. Jack returns home and tries to stay awake but cannot, and awakes again in his penthouse.

Though he is aware that he must travel on Christmas to seal the deal he was in the midst of, Jack’s heart is not in it. He now wants to see Kate. After racing to see Kate at her apartment, he finds out that she is a very serious and successful professional who is moving to France and merely wants to return some things of his still in her possession. She brushes off some of his comments as a desire for “closure” and assures him that she got over him despite being hurt at the time. After taking home his old possessions and looking through them, he decides that he cannot stop there. He races to the airport and (ah, blessed pre-9/11 days!) runs to the gate where she is about to board. After recounting what he saw in his vision, he convinces her to not board the plane. We last see them drinking coffee and talking together.

Liam Lacey in Toronto’s Globe and Mail described the movie as “A series of moments, sentimental and comic, that never do add up to a coherent fable.” John Venable complained that it failed because it didn’t deliver “a happy ending,” meaning that Jack could not stay in his alternate reality. Steven Greydanus complained similarly that “the movie really does erase everything this Kate is sure of, everything that for the last several weeks of his life (and the last hour and a half of mine) Jack has been learning to love.” There are no Annie and Josh—not even waiting for them in heaven! For Mr. Greydanus, “who cares” whether Jack and Kate end up together—the Kate we have come to love in the “glimpse” is different from the Kate in real life.

What all these critics miss is the moral realism that undergirds the film. It is a stern moral realism: actions have consequences. That there are no Josh and Annie, no good New Jersey friends—or any friends at all—for Jack is a great sadness. Kate seems similarly bereft of friends. The scene in her apartment shows us only a former employee who is helping her move based on a quid pro quo. Jack’s decision when he was 22 had great consequences for both of them that cannot be undone. Maybe Mr. Greydanus doesn’t care whether they get back together, but I do. They might well have an Annie and Josh given that the two of them are 35 and most likely capable of marrying and having children. That they cannot have the same life they would have if they had married at 23 is sad, but it does not mean that they cannot have a perfectly good life now in which they approach work and life decisions with more resources and more awareness of the fragility of family life.

Mr. Greydanus complained that, other than the cross on the building that briefly appears over Jack’s head as he speaks to Cash, there are no religious themes. One might say that the Catholic Frank Capra’s film had little more in the way of correct theology even if it had a bit more explicit religious theology. But The Family Man, like the earlier classic, has the same toughness about it. The problems are not fully solved at the end, but the main character now has the chance to change his life in a serious way. Just as the advent of the Savior at Christmastime did not eliminate the consequences of human sin and foolishness but opened a new way forward, so too the vision of Jack Campbell does not change his last thirteen years but opens up the possibility of a very different future for him.

While this might seem sentimental, it is not false sentiment that is produced. It is the full mixture of regret for wasted time and also the upsurge that accompanies hope for a full life. These are only possible when the reality of the consequences of moral choice are acknowledged. What we have at the end of this movie is better than a happy ending: It is the preparation of two individuals for a happy ending despite their past choices. In theological language, those unearned gifts are called “grace.”

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The featured image is courtesy of IMDb and has been brightened for clarity.

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