“You made me a mother” says Elise (Gretchen Mol) to her eldest child Ryan, who is being treated for leukaemia, and I know just what she means, but he’s also her husband Dane’s firstborn and becoming a parent doesn’t seem to have made him much of a father.
A Family Man was originally called The Headhunter’s Calling which I prefer as I love a good pun. Dane Jensen (Gerard Butler, not sounding remotely Scottish) is a headhunter at Blackridge Recruitment who is indeed always calling – sweet-talking and lying to get past secretaries so he can access the highly-qualified people he wants to place in other firms, whether they want to move jobs or not. But he’s in the office most of the time, and when he’s at home his phone is constantly glued to his ear, and family life is on the point of collapse.
Away from work every aspect of life still reminds him and his long-suffering wife of business – every discussion is a negotiation, and even when he wants to spice up their sex life and springs his ideas on her he admits he should have “preclosed” on it first.
Until young Ryan (Maxwell Jenkins) falls dangerously ill, and this, combined with the stress from a competition in the office between Dane and Lynn (Alison Brie), his arch rival for the boss’s chair, forces him to finally, finally re-evaluate his priorities. It takes bloody ages though – with Dane still brokering deals when he should be building bridges.
If all this sounds familiar, then yes it is cliched, very much so in parts – though there’s a discussion to be had about that line between sincerity and sentimentality.
But A Family Man is also surprisingly moving in places, because of two things – the uniformly excellent cast, and a script which, when it isn’t stickily cloying is both moving and funny, with occasional big set piece speeches that come across as genuine.
The humour between Dane and Elise often realistically descends into bickering, which shows just how close he and his wife are to relationship breakdown – one minute they’re laughing over his negotiated monthly blowjob and the next she’s being told she’s not adventurous enough in the bedroom (way to alienate every woman exhausted from looking after children ever, Dane). We never get to hear what they’ve negotiated for her sex-wise each month, though she probably looks at his constantly buzzing phone with something like longing.
Jensen may always say the right thing on the phone to his clients but to his family it’s almost always the wrong thing. When he and Ryan are being shown Ryan’s room at the hospital it’s got a cool TV and a room service button and Dane says with fake cheeriness “You know, I’m going to have to catch a little leukaemia myself!” which doesn’t really do much to lighten the atmosphere. (Ryan is a sweetheart, desperate to talk up his dad despite his father’s failings, telling people he is someone who helps other dads get jobs to provide for their families; which though rather old-fashioned does show the boy has the makings of a great spin doctor.)
Dane and Lynn’s boss Ed (Willem Dafoe) set up Blackridge and now wants to take more of a back seat. Ed is awful to start with and gets worse, though Dafoe manages to bring some depth to one of those men who is remarkable at one thing and assumes they are therefore remarkable at everything.
The competition between Dane and Lynn takes an age to get going (she barely appears for the first hour) and then fizzles out, when it could and should have been a necessary counterweight to the emotional journey in his family life. He and Lynn have a sneaking admiration for each other and a sparky relationship – one minute she’s asking after Ryan’s wellbeing and the next she’s giving Dane a huge jar of petroleum jelly as an early Christmas present because “I’m about to shove November right up your ass”, as her team is leading on sales for the month. “I wish I’d thought of that” he says, looking at his gift, ever the competitor.
Unfortunately there are constant, rather obvious parallels between plot and subplot and rather too many meaningful statements about other situations which always serve to highlight Dane’s behaviour. ( Lou, a dignified Alfred Molina, is a too-old 59 year old engineer desperate to get back to work after a year of unemployment – Dane initially uses him appallingly, and his relationship with the older man follows the same trajectory as with his family, tritely at times.)
Elise spots flashes of the man she married, but often Dane is downright awful – at home he prefers his cute daughter Lauren to Ryan, and at work he continues to treat other people as simply pawns in his game, using their lives to win the numbers and also to make his own more interesting. Though usually it’s all about the money, even if this means not bothering to try and place a man with a middle-eastern name because of racist employers.
And the sheer amount of time Dane holds out is extraordinary. It takes knife-edge treatments, arguments with his wife and pep talks from Anupam Kher’s exasperated Dr Singh (“Cancer is not a negotiation, Mr Jensen”) before he changes.
Gretchen Mol is wonderful as Elise, who has given up everything to stay at home for 10 years only for him to throw it back in her face along with her supposed unemployability. But Butler is also very good as the man who loves his job but is under constant pressure to be in the office in order to provide for his family, who then complain he is never there. None of this is new, but for many families this is their reality and the performances make the story very relatable.
I’m not going to spoiler the ending for you. I will say though that it finishes with a sweet and realistically inelegant fumble on the sofa between Dane and his lovely wife, and me red-faced with panda eyes snuffling into a soggy tissue.