A Family Man


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A Family Man
"Dafoe brings just the right combination of nastiness and charm to his role."

Dane (Gerard Butler) is a professional headhunter. Intensely competitive, he uses every devious trick in the book to get results, keen to impress his boss (Willem Dafoe). He works long hours, which is pushing his marriage to Elise (Gretchen Mol) close to breaking point, which he doesn't really seem to notice, but the worst of it is that he takes his attitude home with him: deciding that his ten year old son Ryan (Max Jenkins) is fat, he basically accuses him of slacking and drags him out on an early morning run. Aside from this being a generally horrible thing to do, the boy doesn't look fat - he looks as if something is wrong, and the run exhausts him.

Not long afterwards, Ryan is diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Dane's response is to haggle with the doctor (Anupam Kher) as if trying to negotiate a better deal. Whilst Elise reorganises her life so she can stay with Ryan in the hospital, he continues to work a if nothing much has happened; but gradually, as the reality of the risk his son faces dawns on him, he begins to change.

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That risk, it must be said, is mitigated somewhat by the family's comfortable circumstances. Ryan gets a spacious isolation room and access to the very latest treatment techniques. Help is found for looking after his younger sister, and Elise wan't working in the first place. A simplified presentation of the illness creates high short term drama but elides the situation the family could face in years to come, with survivors having to be tested at intervals for the rest of their lives in case the disease returns. What we see, however, is reasonably accurate, and young Jenkins handles his role well, avoiding any maudlin nonsense. This is important because there's an unpleasant subtext to the film which hints at the belief that Ryan's illness is some divine punishment for his father's misdeeds. The boy's suffering certainly serves the classic disabled-person-as-inspiration function for his father, whilst the boy himself gains nothing except, perhaps, a soup├žon more attention.

A subplot involving an ageing engineer (Alfred Molina) using Dane's company in a desperate bid to find a new job gives our erstwhile hero something else to get his teeth into, and it's clear from the outset that this will provide the crux of any moral resolution. Overall, though, Dane doesn't grow up very much, and his wife's excitement at this small change, in view of the fact that he's waited until his late forties to get round to it, leaves one feeling that cancer is far from the only malaise at work here. Butler gives the charismatic monster side of his character his all and it's an entertaining turn, but he's less successful at convincing us there's a nice man underneath it all. Mol is in an impossible position, with each "I love you" coming across as more self-deluding than the last.

The technical work on this film is as polished as one would expect given the six years that were spent on it, and Williams knows how to wring the emotions just as well as Dane does. Dafoe brings just the right combination of nastiness and charm to his role, which will delight his fans, and is some compensation for Molina's talents being rather underused. There are many intriguing possibilities in the concept of combining a sick child story with the glamour of a Wall Street-style business drama but, despite all this, A Family Man lacks the self awareness to achieve its potential.

Reviewed on: 25 Jul 2017
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A Family Man packshot
A businessman engaged in a bitter struggle for control of his company learns that his son has cancer.

Director: Mark Williams

Writer: Bill Dubuque

Starring: Gerard Butler, Gretchen Mol, Alison Brie, Max Jenkins, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina

Year: 2017

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: US


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