Synopsis – A headhunter whose life revolves around closing deals in a a survival-of-the-fittest boiler room, battles his top rival for control of their job placement company — his dream of owning the company clashing with the needs of his family.
My Take – There was a time when an action film starring Gerard Butler showed tremendous promise & mostly delivered on it, however with the growing in popularity actor’s sudden career shift of pursuing more dramatic & romantic roles in poorly made films have resulted in somewhat of an unpalatable taste in our mouths. I guess that is why I wasn’t surprised when this film by first time director Mark Williams, who was also one of the producers on the Ben Affleck hit The Accountant, had such a ho-hum response at its TIFF screening last year and has found itself being released under a new name (previous title – The Headhunter’s Calling) in selected theaters and on digital download. Even though Butler‘s role here as the Chicago-based corporate headhunter seems a stab at something more substantial than most of the roles he has under taken until recently, I do agree with most reviews about the film being too generic & offering nothing fresh in terms of content (a dreaded 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is hardly a ringing endorsement), yet I must say it’s nice to see Gerard Butler trying really hard & with immense support from his supporting cast, this modern day take on morality, minutely manages to win you over despite its many flaws. The story follows Dane Jensen (Gerard Butler), a Head hunter at the top of his game at a top Chicago-based headhunting firm Blackrock Recruiting. Jensen is excellent at his job & continues to close deals left & right mainly as he is always willing to move on shaky moral grounds to make sure he gets the numbers in. However, when his bully CEO Ed (Willem Dafoe) announces that he would be retiring in the next three months, Jensen is delighted to be given an opportunity to fill his place, provided he outperforms his office rival Lynn Vogel (Alison Brie). Meanwhile at home, despite providing a good life for his family of three kids, he has not been the husband and father they expect him to be, while his wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) still adores him, she is constantly frustrated of being a second priority to Jensen when it comes to his job. Jensen tries to be a good father to his kids, better than his own father was, while persistently making sure his eldest 10-year-old son, Ryan (Max Jenkins) loses weight, by going out for morning jogs. However, their whole life is shaken when they discover from Dr. Singh (Anupam Kher) that Ryan has been diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia & his chances of survival are close to minimal. Stuck in this emotional turmoil, Jensen must now start balancing his professional life with his personal one a little more successfully, & must come to terms with what really matters in life.
Lingering in the background is one of his clients, Lou (Alfred Molina), an unemployed engineer in his late 50s who nobody wants to take on because of his age & plays a key part in the morality set-up and also bags easily the most touching scene in the film. The movie is a ride between laughter and cries, leaning slightly over the cries as some scenes have a strong emotional weight and carry you through the journey that the main character Dane experiences while he re-values his life and choices as he copes with a family crisis. It is an old format but well interpreted and the photography is beautifully crafted. If you are a sucker for emotional stories with a moral, this is a movie you probably want to watch it has different pace, much quicker to start with, perhaps a bit too fast when it comes to dialogues, but it made sense with the strong contrast I believe they wanted to give to the story when Dane’s real journey starts. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m hardly saying that this film is a classic in the making or it redeems my faith in our Scottish lead, but in its own cautious and unadventurous way it manages to avoid the pitfalls that have befallen other such sentimental works of recent years whether that be maudlin melodrama (If I Stay) or the pretension (Collateral Beauty). For the most part, the film manages to dangle right on the edge of sappiness, just managing to not tip over, until the film reminds us again why we should be routing for Jensen. Seriously, how do you support a corporate greed head who can buy anything he wants because he prefers cheating clients who trust him to spending quality time at home? The film not only expects us to root for its unlovable protagonist, but expects us to do appreciate his loathsome redemption. His eventual redemption is so predictable, clumsily handled, and filled with cheesiness. It also requires the utmost patience and obliviousness from Elise and Ryan, who are both so badly treated by Dane that it’s no small surprise that they still allow him in their lives. The movie offers abundant examples of the lies Dane is willing to tell to land a client in a job, but it seemingly expects us to be impressed by most of them. When it wants our genuine disapproval, it shows how Jensen uses an out-of-work 59-year-old engineer Lou as an unwitting “tracer bullet” — sending him to interview for jobs Jensen knows he won’t get, to gather information a younger applicant can use to his advantage. A certain demographic will always fall for a claptrap, like but when Ryan is made to ask Jensen, “Hey Dad? Do you believe in God?” one hopes the answer is “Yes, Son, and he’s telling distributors they can find much better disease-exploiting family melodramas to offer moviegoers than this one.” What this Mark William film lacks mainly is the originality in its plot & everything is wrapped up far too neatly at the end, obviously that doesn’t make this a terrible film, but rather a generic, all-too-familiar unremarkable one. Without earning the investment of the viewer after the playful opening act, it makes for a rather tedious second half. That said, and conversely, the tonal shift being so dramatic does reflect reality somewhat, as the film doesn’t need to have a somber atmosphere from the offset, it’s okay to be irreverent, and explore trivial matters in the workplace, because that’s what we do, we can’t foresee a tragedy happening, and we don’t live anxiously in anticipation of bad news, we just get on with things. That aspect works, but perhaps it goes too far in one direction, appearing almost as a tongue-in-cheek comedy in parts, self-aware and comedically inclined.
Director Mark Williams’s drama manages to extract some touching moments from the father-son relationship, despite following a beaten, facile path; the result is a tear-jerker that feels overly manipulative and is unremarkable in every possible way. Certain films are meant to be cathartic, they build towards opening a release valve. Other films are about experiencing a journey, they make you feel something along the way. The problem with the film is that the entire film is constructed to service its climactic reveal. Everything that happens along the way feels artificially constructed in order to get you to a heart-warming revelation at the end. Sure, lots of screenwriters plot their scripts from the end and work backward – there is nothing wrong with knowing exactly where you are taking the audience before you begin. However, movies rarely feel this contrived. It’s one thing to go into a film knowing that it intends to break your heart, it’s another to have a film foreshadow its intentions so blatantly & the film is not nearly as cool as it thinks it is in the opening stages, and while the dialogue is fast-paced, it’s horribly contrived in its execution and not in any way authentic either. Perhaps the biggest issue with the film however is its run time of 108 minutes, which is not exactly a world-beater when it comes to run times but even so, this film can’t really carry it. With the premise being somewhat thin and a pretty solid focus on the emotional rigors of Gerard Butler’s performance, the film does grind a bit when it comes to patience. There is after all only so much concern you can eek out of an audience for your characters until the viewers get bored and this film doesn’t really hit the right notes on character and personality to generate much sympathy or investment. It looks like the makers wanted to tell an inspiring story but its premise and execution are not nearly as profound as the movie thinks they are. Although it’s a plot we’ve seen many times before, it’s also a part of life that more and more of us relate to. Williams’ direction and screenwriter, Bill Dubuque’s script, never quite gel. The result is a picture that doesn’t rise above the level of TV-movie drivel. While the movie’s heart is in the right place, the film goes so broad with its storytelling that audiences will find it difficult to take the picture seriously. In spite of its flaws however, the film didn’t have me ripping at my hair with frustration like Collateral Beauty did. No, it’s not exactly blossoming with inspiration, originality or emotional investment but neither does it particularly infuriate, enrage or irritate with simpering sentiment or hollow musings on the nature of life. It’s a functional film if nothing else. Something to have on in the background if you’re doing something else. For what it’s worth, Gerard Butler does give a rather animated performance in a somewhat thankless role. On the one hand, he is given a substantial character arc from a soulless corporate shark/poor father to a decent dad and human being. Throughout he looks haggard and emotionally-exhausted (complimenting his ever-present five-o’-clock shadow) showing that he’s at least committed to his performance even if some of the scenes come off as stilted and awkward. Gretchen Mol can’t quite sell Elise’s loyalty to her husband (to be fair, no actress could), but her performance is otherwise imbued with grace and dignity. Alison Brie is slightly wasted and given next to no screen time. Willem Dafoe as always is tantalizing as the conscience-less rogue. Alfred Molina is excellent in his few scenes, and especially superb in one moment where his character is overwhelmed with relief and elation. Bollywood actor Anupam Kher is likable in the small role. Its young Max Jenkis who shines in every scene and deserves applauds for his strong & moving performance. On the whole, ‘A Family Man’ is a formulaic tear jerker with good performances ultimately let down by its weak and tedious plot.
Directed – Mark Williams
Rated – R
Run Time – 108 minutes