A Family Man

Gerard Butler in A Family Man. (NuMetro)
Gerard Butler in A Family Man. (NuMetro)

What it's about:

When Dane Jensen retires from arranging jobs for engineers at Blackrock Recruiting Agency, he finally achieves his longtime goal of taking over the company after going head-to-head with his ambitious rival, Lynn Vogel. However, upon taking over the company for which he worked so hard to be running, Dane's 10-year-old son, Ryan, is diagnosed with cancer, and Dane’s professional personal priorities begin to clash.

What we thought:

Taking a hiatus from his usual wham bam action fare with a convincing enough turn as a (spoiler) douchebag-turned-softie in this by-the-numbers tearjerker, Gerard Butler headlines a perfectly good cast in a film that is to family dramas what the Olympus Has Fallen series is to action films. It's not egregiously terrible and it's not even entirely unmoving but the only thing that really sets it apart from your average made-for-TV weepie that used to find a home on the Hallmark channel is just how often it manages to miss its mark – which is actually not something you could say about those otherwise pretty rubbish melodramas: They do, at the very least, manage to do what they set out to do.

Here we have a film with solid production values, a good cast and perfectly adequate direction by Mark Williams (especially as a first-time director) but it just feels woefully misjudged at every turn. Even its ultimate message of money and power not being any substitute for your loved ones and living a full, meaningful life is mired by the fact that it comes less in the form of an earned epiphany – or, really, a fairly obvious observation – but by this douchey deal-maker basically making a deal with God that happens to pay off. This little tidbit might be considered a spoiler, by the way, but it's so blindingly obviously handled that you would have to be asleep not to see it coming from a mile away – even as you hope that the film won't go for anything so lazily trite.

The biggest problem, though, is that Butler's Dane Jensen is such an unrepentant scumbag from the off that he is all but unbearable to spend any time with to the point that even a dying child – that cheapest of all sympathy-invoking ploys – struggles to make him remotely sympathetic. His redemptive arc does make him slightly less horrible as the film goes on but it's really kind of too little too late and is certainly not helped by the fact that the plot developments that drive his arc are so contrived you can all but see their gears shifting.

Butler isn't bad in the film but he's also nowhere near good enough an actor to elevate his character into someone more complex, more compelling, more sympathetic or even just more human. It also isn't helped that he is outclassed at every turn by Gretchen Mol, Anupham Kher, Willem Defoe and Alfred Molina – the latter of whom, in particular, really gives the film a boost as a middle-aged man desperately in need of a job and who brings all the pathos, wit and natural warmth that is missing in so much of the rest of the film. Even Alison Brie, who is criminally underutilised here, gives more life to her headhunter character in her ten minutes of screen time than Butler gives over the course of the entire film. Again, though, it's hard to say just how much of this is Butler's fault and how much is the lackluster script by Bill Dubuque.

Now, I have no doubt whatsoever that there are going to be tons of cinema goers who will write off my observations as totally unfair and just the usual snobbish reaction of a pretentious film critic – this film is so seemingly big-hearted and sweet, how could anyone really talk against it? The honest truth is that not only do I generally have no real problem with tearjerkers, I often outright love them. Just see my reviews of The Fault in Our Stars or Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to see how much these things can work for me. More than that, I absolutely expect a certain level of old-fashioned emotional manipulation from this genre.

The problem with A Family Man is just how obvious its manipulations are and just how cynically it plays out. It may look heartfelt but you can almost feel the corporate machinery running beneath it.

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