By Preston Wilder
You gotta love Gerard Butler. Actually you don’t, you may find him obnoxious and beyond the pale – but at least you have to appreciate that he’s deeply unfashionable. He’s a blustery, unreconstructed macho in a world where the golden rule is being inclusive and not giving offence. Butler has no time for namby-pamby restraint, whether plotting elaborate vigilante revenge in Law Abiding Citizen or ridding London of Islamist scum in London Has Fallen (a film whose plotting is so ludicrous, and its ‘Islamophobia’ so blatant, it achieves its own crazy grandeur). Most critics hate Gerard Butler. Gerard Butler doesn’t care.
Most critics also hated A Family Man – Butler’s stab at a kinder, gentler drama – seeing a mix of shopworn master-of-the-universe clichés and maudlin tearjerker, and I guess you can see it that way. Our hero is Dane Jensen who also sometimes calls himself ‘Jimmy Cobra’ when cold-calling clients, on the theory that every successful headhunter needs a good “desk name”. Whether a high-end corporate recruiter needs a desk name that makes him sound like a small-time drug dealer is another question (though secretaries don’t seem to mind, patching ‘Mr. Cobra’ through to their bosses); fortunately, Dane also confirms his ruthless-capitalist status by being casually racist, urging an underling to seek out that “small dark part of yourself that’s predatory”, and body-shaming his young son Ryan for putting on weight. These are all very Gerard Butler things to do – but it turns out Ryan isn’t getting fat, instead his spleen is swollen because he’s suffering from a form of childhood cancer. Joke’s on you, Gerard Butler!
There’s a lot of silly detail in this movie, and the moment when it turns from a poor man’s Wall Street into a disease-of-the-week TV drama with a sick child – will Dane see the error of his capitalist ways in the face of family tragedy? – may be the moment when you tune out completely. Yet Butler is a complicated presence, bull-like vitality and bluster with a tinge of melancholy. One unexpected aspect of A Family Man is the way it celebrates older guys (an entire sub-plot is devoted to Alfred Molina as an unemployed engineer who can’t get a job because he’s in his 50s), and Dane too is middle-aged, his animal energy implicitly fading. The corporate scenes are unconvincing, feeling like a rehash of similar scenes in better movies – though Bill Dubuque, who wrote the script, is himself apparently a former headhunter – but the scenes with Dane and his family have a certain energy, mostly because Butler is so invested; he does come across as a family man, albeit in the old patriarchal sense of the term.
It’s intriguing when Dane and wife Elise (Gretchen Mol, doing a lot with little) talk explicitly about sex, still a rare occurrence in multiplex movies – and of course Dane is “more sexual” than his wife, testosterone being his most obvious element. Elise recalls their early days together, the first time she got up the nerve to say “I love you” and he replied “What’s not to love?” (I’d never met anyone “so confident, so infuriating, so full of energy and life,” she marvels) – and some will find that exchange to be just a rancid celebration of entitled male arrogance yet, like the gung-ho bellicosity of London Has Fallen, it’s so blatant that it makes (and requires) no apology. This is what Butler does, embracing the persona to create his own kind of hero, half thug, half lion.
I can’t exactly recommend A Family Man, yet I can’t hate it either. It’s faintly absurd when Dane and the little boy bond over 9/11 (“Were you sad?”), yet the awkwardness fits the occasion. It’s a bit cringe-inducing that Ryan’s doctor is a wise Sikh gentleman with a brisk-yet-compassionate manner who chides our corporate hero – “Cancer is not a negotiation, Mr. Jensen” – but I guess we appreciate the sentiment. It’s a thunderingly crude and maudlin irony that Dane’s voice (his main weapon in the world of business) may also be what will save his son, comatose children being apparently responsive to the sound of their parents’ voices – but fortunately this somewhat ridiculous twist doesn’t really go anywhere.
In the end, this is more a film to watch on TV than pay €9 for. Still, it has its moments. Dane and Elise have a fight, he flaunts his wounded male ego and calls himself “a goddam American hero” – and it’s such a daft thing to say that the fight breaks down, and they both laugh. Ryan, on his hospital sickbed, recalls the nights when his dad came home after he’d gone to bed: “I could still smell his cologne for a while. It smelled like Dad. It made me feel safe”. Mediocre movies can be sweet sometimes – and Gerard Butler, well, you gotta love him. To quote Jimmy Cobra: What’s not to love?
DIRECTED BY Mark Williams
STARRING Gerard Butler, Gretchen Mol, Willem Dafoe
US 2016 108 mins