Friday, June 5, 2009

Channeling Nicolas Cage

Channel Nicolas Cage? The reader could be forgiven for asking if we have lost our (admittedly addled) minds. Nevertheless, we make the claim that the star of such forgettable fare as "Snake Eyes" and "Con Air" has given us a near-perfect template of how to live the absurd life.

Specfically, Cage's role as Jack Campbell in "The Family Man"--to most, an unremarkable movie about what is really important in life (read: family rather than wealth)--gives us a look at how we can step outside the mirage of our "selves" and live a life unconstrained by the self-imposed shackles of who we "are."

In the movie, Cage plays is a high-flying Wall Street exec, living what can only be described as the ultimate bachelor life--high-powered job in NYC, expensive car, beautiful women at his beck and call, etc. However, after a chance encounter with Don Cheadle (who plays something of a guardian angel), Campbell wakes up the next morning to find himself married (to his old girlfriend Tea Leoni) with two children, living in the NJ suburbs and working as a tire salesman. Basically, it is an alternate universe where Campbell made different decisions and thus his life turned out differently. And this is where things get interesting.

After the initial shock wears off (and Cheadle explains Campbell must live this alternate life for some indefinite period of time), Campbell settles in to his "new" life with an ironic shrug. While not the life he knows (or thinks he wants), it does seem to have its benefits (beyond Tea Leoni...) First, everything is new to him, and he spends a good deal of time being intrigued by his everyday surroundings. His house, for example, becomes a treasure-trove of interesting artifacts to be discovered.

Second (and this is arguably the most important point), since he knows his situation is temporary, he adjusts his actions accordingly. For example, in one classic scene a friend warns Campbell against the long-term consequences of cheating on his wife (ie, loss of trust). Campbell responds simply: "Arnie, I don't want your head to explode, but I'm telling you, those rules don't apply to me." In other words, since Campbell only expects to be in this alternate universe temporarily, there are no long-term consequences. Well...what a fantastic allegory for reality! We are all, in other words, only here temporarily. And while Campbell's "temporary" is shorter than ours (or so we assume - any of us could, of course, die tomorrow), this is simply a matter of degree. Put a different way, Campbell's dismissal of long-term issues provides a wonderful case study of how to embrace the temporary and meaningless nature of life.

Third, since Campbell has no memory of becoming a married tire salesman with two children, he views himself objectively. In his "first" day as a tire salesman, for example, he finds a bottle of scotch in his desk drawer, and quips (to himself): "You must have needed this every day..." Again, what a wonderful way to look at things! Virtually all of us are locked into who we "are," despite the fact that such labels depend entirely on genetics and the circumstances in which we have found ourselves. How much more sensible to have no preconceived notions (about anything), but simply take things as they come, and view the myth of our "selves" with a wry sense of irony.

Channeling Nicolas Cage, then, is our code for accepting (and celebrating!) the temporary and meaningless nature of existence, as well as the tremendously liberating benefits of viewing our "selves" objectively and all situations as "new."


  1. Good points. I just saw this movie yesterday after reading about it here.

    I thought another interesting aspect of this movie was that even though the moral of the story seems to be that Jack messed up his life by splitting with his girl friend and becoming rich, the question is is this actually true.

    Jack, in the beginning of the movie, seems to be a pretty happy and satisfied guy as a high power wall street broker. It's not like he was depressed or anxious. he was living fully and having fun. Had he never been showed a glimpse of the other reality, he probably never would have even missed it. Of course once Jack learns to love his new children and wife he is happier, but perhaps that's only because it was new and fresh to him. In a few years forward who is to say he would be any happier than his bachelor life? It's interesting that the movie writers didn't make the wall street Jack more anxious and grumpy, but instead made him a nice and happy fellow

  2. Thomas-

    Interesting point. Our guess is the writers wanted to drive home the point that Jack only thinks he is happy until he realizes the joy of family - it is, after all, a holiday movie...;-)

    But yes, it does raise the issue that he sure seemed happy before being shown the "glimpse" of his alternate life, and one wonders what would be the result if (for example) the roles were reversed...