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The road not taken


& & by Ed Symkus & & & &

What if? That's a question that's been bandied about in novels and films and TV for the longest time. What if, as Franz Kafka wrote, you woke up one morning as a big insect, or as Philip Roth wrote, as a big breast? What if, as in The Twilight Zone, you woke up from a life-threatening heat wave to discover you were actually freezing to death? Or what if, as happened in The Watermelon Man, you went to sleep a white racist and woke up a black man?

The most recent in this chain asks what if you go to sleep a powerful, wealthy, single but rather empty company president and playboy, and wake up married, with two kids and a job selling tires for your father-in-law?

It's Christmas Day when this thing goes down, and Jack (Nicolas Cage) wakes up, not in his classy Manhattan apartment, but in a small house in New Jersey; not next to one of his many casual, beautiful conquests, but next to his college sweetheart, Kate (Tea Leoni) -- who he hasn't heard from since he walked out on her many years before.

His first reaction? To run like hell back to the city. But, strangely enough, his Ferrari is nowhere to be found; there's only a mini-van out front. And when he does get back to Manhattan, no one knows him at either his apartment building or his office (that, of course would be the security guard since this is, after all, Christmas). He doesn't exist. What is all this? A blatant rip-off of It's a Wonderful Life? No, it's unlikely that anyone would revisit that one after Robert Zemeckis did it in such a classy, inventive manner in Back to the Future Part II.

It's sort of explained a bit earlier when Jack, working late on Christmas Eve, intervenes in what looks like a robbery in progress in a small Manhattan grocery store. In breaking it up he gets into a business deal and discussion with the man with the gun (Don Cheadle), who apparently has certain powers that he doesn't disclose to Jack.

So here's poor Jack, living a whole new life that everyone around him -- wife, kids, best pal (Jeremy Piven), co-workers, all of whom have known him for a long time -- has been living forever. Of course, they're all strangers to him, even this version of the woman he once lived with. Fortunately, Cage is an actor with more range than most critics have been kind enough to give him. He's been very good as heels (Face/Off), as excitable fellows (Honeymoon in Vegas) and as romantic interests (Moonlighting), but here he's got to play a normal guy in an abnormal situation, someone who's totally lost but can't really let on to anyone else because they'd think he's nuts. And Cage pulls off the role like the pro he is. His long face of sadness and confusion is priceless, his brief rants aren't a bit out of place (except for the first, unexpected one), his eventual attraction to this woman who's now his wife -- there's no other way this story could've gone -- is completely believable.

And as far as Leoni goes, here's an actress who, with the exception of Flirting With Disaster, has given a series of flat performances. I wish that big wave had come a lot earlier in Deep Impact. But here, as the lovely and loving wife, she opens up and presents a whole new side of her talents. Due to some hair coloring or styling or something, she's also initially unrecognizable. Let's see what she can do in Jurassic Park III.

There are some throwaway bits in the script that the film could've done without, the most ridiculous and annoying one involving a friend of Kate's who's not so discreetly putting the moves on Jack when no one else is looking. But suddenly the whole thing is dropped and never mentioned again, as if the writers forgot to get back to it. But there are also some very funny and very charming moments, the best combination of which centers on Jack trying to deal with changing the diaper of his infant son, and at the same time, getting to know his little girl, Annie, who sort of sees through his facade, but thinks his strange actions are because he's from another planet.

It's most likely Cage who's pulling good performances out of everyone because most of the film's highlights involve scenes in which he's talking with just one other person. The ending is a pretty weird one that doesn't exactly add up to much. But all in all this is simply one of those rare easy-to-take movies, one that makes for a real nice visit.

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