Grade: D

When reviewing “Me Myself I” earlier this year–a slight Australian comedy in which Rachel Griffiths played an unhappy single woman magically transported into an alternative life married to her high-school sweetheart–I opined that should the “what if?” piece ever be transformed into a bloated, big-budget Hollywood production, someone like Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan might star. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the stateside replacement would be Nicolas Cage. Yet that’s what “The Family Man,” a sloppily sentimental gender-twisting variant of the earlier picture, offers us. And as tiresome as the earlier film was, the new one is even worse.

Of course, Brett Ratner’s effort isn’t actually a remake; though one might be tempted to think that David Diamond and David Weisman are merely pen names adopted by Aussie scripter-director Pip Karmel to allow her to pick up two paychecks for one screenplay, such is not the case. It appears instead that a single bad idea infected both sides of the Pacific almost simultaneously. In the present instance, what emerges is an unholy imitation of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a veritable glacier of treacle, oozing inexorably on for two hours, gradually swallowing the actors, the screen, and the audience as well. It’s like “The Blob,” except that it’s composed of saccharine.

In this telling, Jack Campbell (Cage) is a smug, aggressive Wall Street high-roller putting the finishing touches to a huge merger deal. After being accosted by a street punk called Cash (Don Cheadle), who, after threatening him, suggests that he question his values, Jack goes to sleep in his plush apartment, only to awaken to a totally different life as a tire salesman wed to Kate (Tea Leoni), the college sweetie he’d left thirteen years earlier by flying off to a European internship. He’s also got two utterly adorable kids, Annie (Makenzie Vega), a preternaturally wise urchin with a supposedly charming lisp, and baby Josh (played by twins Jake and Ryan Milkovich); you’d have to be way too optimistic to believe that we don’t have to suffer through the obligatory scene in which fish-out-of-water Jack has to change Josh’s diaper, suffering from the odor and the predictable yellow spray in the process. Anyway, Jack is understandably overwhelmed by his changed circumstances, but he tries to cope, even going so far as to worm his way back into his former big-bucks investment firm. Ultimately Cash (who’s some sort of grubby Clarence, of course) returns our hero to his true life, but by then Jack’s become entranced with Kate again, and searches her out. Will they be able to get together after so many years? Can Jack’s change of heart be extended to her?

In a fantasy like this, of course, one can’t expect any surprises, and “The Family Man” follows the obvious pattern. Not an instant in it seems even vaguely real; all is the most cloying sort of manipulation. But the most meretricious part of the thing is that although the picture wants to espouse an anti-materialist message–Jack learns that all his wealth is meaningless without the woman he loves (since the kids are just part of his alternate life, it would appear, they don’t really count)–when he approaches the older Kate at the end of the picture it’s with his bankroll (and hers, since she too has changed) completely intact. The salt-of-the-earth family life we’ve watched them share for nearly two hours turns out to have been a complete fraud, for even if they do link up, they’ll probably look for an even bigger Park Avenue pad. Talk about having your cake and eating it too!

Actors can’t really be expected to do much with this kind of fluff, but Cage, overemoting in all the guises he has to adopt here (smirking businessman, harried hubby, remorseful as Scrooge come the close)is embarrassingly over-the-top. (It almost makes you nostalgic for one of his Jerry Bruckheimer action flicks: he’s terrible in those too, but generally less overwrought.) Tea Leoni is easy to look at as his long-lost love, and she certainly shows more verve than she did in “Deep Impact,” but that’s not saying much The charismatic Cheadle has nothing to work with as Cash, and Jeremy Piven is his usual irritating self as Jack’s best buddy in his fantasy married state. Saul Rubinek does his nervous schtick playing Wall Street Jack’s put-upon subordinate, and Josef Sommer lends his customary air of nasty elegance to the firm’s owner. But, once again, their material is feeble.

To be fair, “The Family Man” looks good. All the technical credits are fine, from Dante Spinotti’s crisp cinematography to Kristi Zea’s production design. (An exception is the usually reliable Danny Elfman’s score, which sounds like rejected leftovers from his music for “Edward Scissorhands.”) And to his credit Ratner keeps things in frame and moving along well enough, though he obviously has no gift for understatement. But his picture is just imitation CapraCorn without any of the earlier helmer’s patented canniness. It’s a load of sentimental slush not even Universal’s other big Christmas star, the reformed Grinch, could love.