Monday, December 31, 2012

You Can't Imagine How Everything Changes

I don't judge people for not having children. I don't. For many years I could no more imagine having children than I can imagine not having children now. So I understand the reasons for not having children. And I respect them. But I can't undo the knowledge of what it means to have a son and a daughter. And it really does change everything.

Instapundit notes this article, which quotes this observation about the effects of parenthood:

Steven Spielberg once said that, after he had children, he changed his mind about the way he’d ended Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The dad who joins the aliens to head off into the galaxy, he said, was created “blithely … Today, I would never have the guy leaving his family and going on the mothership.” The fact that he’s abandoning his children never crossed my mind when I saw that movie as a young person, and I suspect it would puzzle me now.

Yes, I understand. Being a parent ruined The Family Man for me, as I wrote in April 2004 when I saw it. Excuse me for reproducing the entire post since it resides on the undead archives and strangely is too dark to easily read. That's new for that site.

Anyway, the post:

I watched The Family Man yesterday, starring Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni. Cage is a good actor and Leoni is totally hot. It's a 2000 movie about a man who goes to London and embarks on a stunning financial career at the expense of the college sweetheart (Leoni) he leaves behind in America. She had asked him not to go, but he does, promising he'll return after his year abroad. He returns, to be sure, but not to Leoni. Cage is incredibly wealthy, with a rich lifestyle in New York City, and doesn't need a thing, he says.

Cage runs into an apparent street thug who pulls a pistol on a shop owner in a dispute over cashing a winning lottery ticket. Cage intervenes by offering to buy the ticket from the armed man. The man takes the offer, and after a conversation in which Cage tries to save the young "thug" and the thug hints he is part of some organization that has noticed his intervention and is impressed.

Somehow, the mysterious man places Cage in an alternate place where Cage wakes up on Christmas morning to find he is married to Leoni and they have two children, a boy still too young to talk and a little girl. Cage sells tires retail and lives in New Jersey. Cage is getting a glimpse of what his life could have been. It's billed as a sort of It's a Wonderful Life story.

At first Cage is horrified at his life with middle class clothing, bowling, changing diapers, retail sales of tires, shoveling snow, and walking the dog. The little girl recognizes that Cage is not her daddy. He says he isn't but that he'll come back. She thinks he's an alien and when he promises not to harm her, she helps him out on the routine of his life.

And of course, Cage realizes he never stopped loving Leoni. And he learns to enjoy what he has in this glimpse of what his life would have been if he hadn't gone to London. It is well done and enjoyable. Leoni doesn't know what has gotten into her husband but she clearly still loves him. Yet Cage considers an affair with another women because he isn't "really" married to Leoni.

But one day, while he is on his lawn playing with his little girl, she falls on top of him and happily tells him, "I knew you'd come back!" And Cage was indeed her daddy. They hugged, lying on the snow, while Leoni looks on smiling from a window. Cage likes the life he could have had--the life he thinks is now his.

It seems all will be well when Cage's boss from his real life loses a tire and comes in to Cage's business. Cage wows the boss with his finance knowledge despite lack of experience and credentials, and lands an entry level position in the company he used to lead. Leoni is aghast that Cage would take this job and uproot them from their community, friends, and school, but she chooses to stay with him. It seems Cage will get it all despite the choice he made years ago in college to walk away from his true love.

That's when Cage is reminded that all he is getting is a glimpse of the life he could have had--not that actual life. He runs into the same man who sent him on his glimpse and knows he must go back to his rich life.

So Cage won't go to sleep, trying to hang on to the life that could have been. He looks in at his sleeping children and spends the night in his bedroom, looking at Leoni, until he finally drops off at dawn.

He awakens in his expensive and neat but sterile apartment. He races to "his" house and finds that Leoni does not live there. In many ways this seems just. To have allowed him to stay in that new life--while retaining all the memories and experience of his original life--is essentially giving Cage more than one life. Had he stayed in this new life, he would have basically had a three-week humbleness retreat where he gave up his riches before returning to his life of riches based on his years of knowledge and experience from his original life. But this time he has the love of his life and two wonderful children. This is fair?

And while at first it seems like he is resigned to rejoining his old life that now seems so hollow to him, he soon sets out to find Leoni and undo what he now views as his youthful mistake of going to London and not marrying Leoni.

This is where the movie lost me. Mind you, I like it still, but it lost a lot. I've always thought that it is pointless to dwell on "what might have been" thoughts. You can--and should--work to make up for bad decision or even just decisions that turned out bad, but you can't actually undo those decisions. You make your decisions and move forward. And imagining what might be different--and presumably better--from one different choice fails to take into account how changing one piece--even one that seems bad--in the mosaic of your life would change all the others--even the good ones that flowed from that "bad" decision. We can't make good decisions all the time. We can't. All we can hope for is that we make enough good decisions and that we are capable of coping with the bad decisions, making even bad decisions turn into good choices with hard work and some sense of optimism that life works out.

Cage should have counted himself lucky just to get a glimpse of what might have been, in order to make himself a better person in his original life, with the price of this insight perhaps for him to endure the knowledge of what might have been .

So instead of perhaps giving us a moral lesson in responsibility, the movie is seemingly on the way to giving us a happy ending where Cage realizes his mistake and gets his college-age sweetheart after all. Cage finds Leoni in New York City where she is a successful lawyer and who is packing to go to Paris for her job. Leoni tells Cage she is over him and he needs to move on, too.

Of course, in a replay of the first scene where Cage goes away and Leoni begs him to stay, Cage goes to the airport and asks her to stay--just to have coffee and talk, this time. She says "no."

While Leoni returns to her line, Cage then goes on to tell Leoni about their wonderful life, their house, her non-profit job, and their wonderful children. Instead of thinking of this man she hasn't seen in more than a dozen years as a nutcase for spinning such a fantasy as reality, she stays for coffee.

And the imagery of falling snow that signaled both the onset of his glimpse of his alternate life and his return to his original life is how the movie ends, with the two of them still talking in an airport coffee shop long after the other passengers have gone.

If he just got a glimpse, and that is all that is possible, how did Cage display any unique need or goodness, whether in his glimpse or back in his original life, needed to give him this alternate life based on what would have been the "right" choice (while keeping his experience from the "wrong" choice)?

But however unlikely that change in the apparent rules of those glimpses seem, and how wrong it seems to me to allow do-overs in life, the alternative is even worse. What if that talk over coffee simply meant that Cage and Leoni were getting a chance in their existing lives to pick up where they left off?

Instead of a happy ending, we'd have a really tragic ending. Imagine if this is what was happening? Cage gets the love of his life. Leoni, too, gets the man she loved. And they have their wealth and status, too. But they don't have the life history that made them love each other in that alternate life.

And most important, the children they had in that alternate life would not exist. The little girl, especially, who in three short weeks Cage came to see as his daughter who he loved--and who in turn came to see him as her daddy after all--would not exist. Would Cage have gone on about their absence, becoming bitter about what he did not have from that "glimpse" that he wanted for his life? Would Leoni have come to be angry with Cage for denying her even the memories of that life that he shares with her? This so-called correction leaves two souls out of the world, doomed never to talk or finally learn to play the violin.

But the movie did not clearly spell out what happens next. It left the the next step vague in an effort to give this story a happy ending, at least in implication, despite the problems in crafting a happy ending under the possibilities available. In the end, while still an enjoyable movie, it is a disturbing movie, made all the more unsettling by the image of the Twin Towers in the beginning that no re-dos can bring back.

Rather than being a movie about the perils of choices and the importance of living the only life we have as well as we can, it implies that you can have it all--that Earthly redemption can make up for earlier mistakes--or even just regrets--and erase your errors.

End original post.

So there you go. Parenthood ruins movies. I couldn't really enjoy that move without thinking of the two children who would not exist in the movie version of a happy ending. Without the children, the ending could not be happy for me.

For those who choose not to have children, please be happy. Understand that for those who have children, the world is never the same. Happy endings aren't as easy to write.

But Leoni is hot, regardless, you have to admit.