A FAMILY MAN

Producer: Nicolas Chartier, Mark Williams, Craig J. Flores, Alan Siegel, Gerard Butler and Patrick Newall
Director: Mark Williams
Writer: Bill Dubuque
Stars: Gerard Butler, Gretchen Mol, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Alison Brie, Maxwell Jenkins, Julia Butters, Anupam Kher, Dwain Murphy, Mimi Kuzyk, Dustin Milligan, Kathleen Munroe, Jess Berry, Tim Hopper, Ethan MacIver-Wright and Dylan Roberts
Studio: Vertical Entertainment

C-

A scoundrel is redeemed yet again in “A Family Man,” but watching the mawkish movie might make you gag on its mixture of bluster and treacle. It’s the sort of film that’s woefully out of place in theatres, being far more suited to a non-premium cable channel.

Bill Dubuque’s script, originally titled “The Headhunter’s Calling,” introduces Dane Jensen (Gerard Butler) as the hard-driving head of a bank of telephone solicitors who alternately cajole and bully top talent at companies to consider moving on and corporate HR people to hire them, bringing in big commissions to his Chicago-based firm. Jensen is in competition with Lynn Vogel (Alison Brie) to win the top spot in the operation, which their shark-like boss Ed Blackridge (Willem Dafoe) intends to hand over upon his retirement—to whichever of them scores the most “sales” over the next few months.

It’s a cutthroat business in which both Dane and Lynn are happy to undercut each other whenever the opportunity affords. Workaholic Dane spends more and more time at the office, neglecting his family—wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), son Ryan (Max Jenkins) and daughter Lauren (Julia Butters)—even more than usual. When Ryan begins complaining of fatigue and gaining weight, Dane chalks it up to laziness and insists he start jogging.

Of course, that’s not where the problem lies. When Ryan is tested by Dr. Singh (Anupam Kher), the diagnosis is acute lymphoblastic leukemia demanding immediate and continuous treatment. Dane is torn between his duties as a father and his job-related demands. Is there any doubt about how this tug-of-war is going to turn out?

Dane’s situation is further complicated by his difficulty finding a position for Lou Wheeler (Alfred Molina), a 59-year old engineer who’s been laid off and is growing increasingly desperate. Jensen, his newest hire Sumner (Dustin Milligan) and Lynn toy with Lou’s prospects until, of course, Dane finds a heart and makes a personal sacrifice on his behalf. His good deed, we learn in a postscript, will not go unrewarded—only one aspect of the feel-good ending of the movie.

Butler mostly bellows through his role, though of course he must dissolve into tears and regret as Ryan’s condition worsens. It would be difficult to choose his most embarrassing sequence, but a solid candidate is the excruciatingly written and acted speech he gives—during Thanksgiving dinner, no less—when Elise criticizes him for taking a business call during the family gathering. As he belittles his wife’s ability to get a job if he loses his, there are cutaways to the children and extended family sitting in stunned silence, listening to his tirade—and Dubuque and conscientious but pedestrian first-time director Mark Williams, shifting from his usual producer’s role, understandably end the scene without husband and wife returning to the table, probably realizing that anything that followed up on it would be even more implausible.

Is there anything praiseworthy in the movie? A couple of things. One is Dafoe, who gives a gleefully malevolent performance as the despicable Ed, although even he gets a brief chance to show a softer side. Other than that moment, however, Dafoe uses every device to make the mogul a joyously Mephistophelean figure; the result is virtual camp, but it’s amusing. (By contrast, even as fine an actor as Molina can do little with the whole sappy Lou subplot, while the rest of the cast respond with perfunctory work, though Jenkins is a cute kid.)

The other is Shelly Johnson’s widescreen cinematography, which uses the Chicago locations to excellent effect. The city is, of course, one of the most architecturally remarkable in the world, and one of the screenplay’s odd elements is having Ryan interested in being squired around to see structures like the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building while his parents recite facts about them. To be sure, the dialogue in the sequences seem to come out of a city guidebook—and one certainly could have done without the speech a sad Dane gives unbidden to a group of tourists at a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house, or the manipulative moment when father and son respond together over a 9/11 memorial plaque—but at least one gets to see some attractive buildings rather than being fed a diet of warmed-over “Glengarry Glen Ross” mixed with afternoon soap opera. By contrast, Mark Isham’s maudlin score is a definite minus.

Dane Jensen’s bombastic telephone calls to potential customers should have resulted in quick hang-ups at the other end. The invitation to watch his sappy soul-searching should be declined just as decisively.