Mark Reviews Movies

A Family Man


1.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mark Williams

Cast: Gerard Butler, Gretchen Mol, Max Jenkins, Alfred Molina, Alison Brie, Willem Dafoe, Dustin Milligan, Anupam Kher, Kathleen Munroe

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 7/28/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 27, 2017

Here's a strange tear-jerker about karma. The idea is floated around a few times in A Family Man—basically, that whatever a person does is paid back in the long run. It's supposed to make us feel better by the end, but then there's the troubling flip side of it: If a decent act is paid back with good things in the movie's mind, is a string of bad acts paid back in kind, as well?

If so, that puts a cosmically uncomfortable spin on the story of Dane Jensen (Gerard Butler), a headhunter for a high-class firm in Chicago who's self-absorbed, completely career-oriented, and ruthless in his tactics when he deems it necessary. He's not a decent guy. We know this because he ignores his family, lies about getting a job for someone, and does some unethical and illegal things to prevent hopeful job-searchers from gaining employment, lest he miss out on getting his company its fee.

Is this behavior why his family has to endure a long, painful medical crisis? If we're to follow the movie's argument that good acts are rewarded, we kind of have to follow the notion that bad acts are punished. That the punishment befalls an innocent kid here is some troubling, biblical stuff.

Bill Dubuque's screenplay doesn't outright say that Dane's behavior is cause of his son's cancer, because that would sound dumb. It's no dumber than the idea that a change in the father's behavior could save the kid, but that part of the karmic equation is supposed to make us feel better, I guess. Let's just say that Dubuque strongly implies that Dane's badness causes a really bad thing to happen.

Taking all of the karma stuff out of the discussion, this is still a ham-fisted movie that exploits a child's suffering with the aim of manipulating an emotional response from us. There are a few scenes that come close, if only because there's a certain level of sincerity to them. On the other hand, it's impossible to remove the feeling that the whole thing has been engineered to achieve as much weepiness as possible.

Before the bad stuff happens, Dane is being considered for a promotion that would put him on track to run the company. His boss Ed (Willem Dafoe), a hedonistic and greedy man, is deciding between Dane and Lynn (Alison Brie). Whichever of them has made the most money for the firm by the end of the year will get the job.

Dane is already pushing it with his wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), who repeatedly chastises her husband for working too much and, just as many times, immediately crumbles whenever he brings up the breadwinner argument. Of their three kids, Ryan (Max Jenkins), the eldest, is the one that matters. He has been tired lately, and Dane thinks the kid just needs to be more active. When the son asks if his father will play catch with him, of course Dane says he's too busy with work.

Part of that work is finding a job for Lou (Alfred Molina), an unemployed engineer—at least that's what Dane says to the guy. In reality, he uses some of the job-searchers as decoys to get a select few into positions with companies that will pay Dane's firm for finding the right person. Dane isn't above sabotaging the process. At one point, he calls a company, pretending to be an FBI agent, to tell the boss about a new hire's phony criminal record.

In case one couldn't tell, he's not a good person. The rest of the story revolves around Dane's reaction to the news that Ryan has a rare form of leukemia. We're supposed to believe that the experience will change him, although there's little evidence of that, considering how he still continues to work long hours, screw over people, and miss out on important hospital visits. Through all of this, there comes a point when Dane seems incapable of changing, no matter how many field trips he takes with Ryan to famous architectural sites in the city or how much his output at work suffers. The movie, apparently, needs his seeming indifference for dramatic purposes, but at a certain point, we simply start to believe that Dane is a bad guy through and through.

All of this escalates, of course, because there must be some defining moment that can turn Dane's heart. It's too much manipulation (There's a sequence involving a phone call that is patently ridiculously in the way it tries to manufacture tension). The end result reveals that A Family Man is a simplistic morality tale, in which the wrong people are punished for the actions of the bad.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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