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From Nicolas Cage, fans expect the unexpected

(ran TP, GB editions)

From the offbeat to the mindless, from dark to lighthearted, his work is rarely predictable.

Is Nicolas Cage a sensitive guy?

There has been some debate on the subject in recent years. Certainly, the ever-unpredictable actor registered one of the most touching screen portrayals of alcoholism ever filmed with his Oscar-winning, 1995 Leaving Las Vegas performance. And he has gotten a good bit of real feeling across in otherwise characteristically extreme roles; Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, Honeymoon in Vegas and last year's Bringing Out the Dead are some prime examples.

But the general take on Cage's deceptively varied movie career usually divides into two neatly, if inaccurately, reductive categories: the eclectic, eccentric pre-Leaving work and the bonehead blockbuster era that immediately followed. Or, to put it another way, the cockroach-eating (Vampire's Kiss), steroid-pumping (Kiss of Death) period and the time of hanging around Jerry Bruckheimer too much (The Rock, Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds).

With all that in mind, Cage's latest offering, the holiday feel-good fantasy The Family Man, comes to us with a certain art-reflects-life sensitivity for which a highly commercial product rarely has room.

In the film, Cage's Jack Campbell is a big-league New York financial genius who loves his job, his ultra-sleek bachelor condo and the parade of desirable women who spend nights in it with him, then obligingly leave in the morning. He's a relatively nice guy until, through one of those unexplained circumstances you could call movie mysticism, he finds himself living an alarmingly different life.

Suddenly, Jack discovers that he's married to Kate (Tea Leoni), a college girlfriend he hasn't seen in 13 years. They live in a midscale New Jersey suburb with their two young children. He works at her father's tire store.

He doesn't remember any of this. And he is not the least bit happy about it. He does not act like the devoted husband and father these strange people expect him to be. In fact, sometimes, he's downright nasty to them, in the unsettling way that only Nic Cage can be.

It's also hard to think of any other actor his age who could convincingly limn Jack's confusion, frustration and growing appreciation of his alternate life sympathetically yet unsentimentally. After all, he's an actor who knows the feel of both $20-million paydays and the most imagination-taxing work for little more than the love of it.

"It's very confusing, and Jack's having trouble acclimating," says Cage, 36, looking model-buff and sharp in silk ribbed pants and a snug gray sweater. "He wants to go back to his other life, but I don't think, at any moment, does he really condescend or act superior to these people; he just is not at home."

By employing a careful calibration of humor, anger management and growing enchantment with the wife who loves him _ despite how weirdly he's behaving _ Cage hoped to make Jack believably complex. The character could easily have turned into a pale, millennial echo of It's a Wonderful Life's George Bailey. An obsessive bit about trying on an expensive Zegna suit Jack now can't possibly afford illustrates Cage's multitrack approach.

"The scene in the mall was one of my favorites when I read the script," he says. "I saw the frustration in the character trying to get back to his life just by, like, observing himself in a good suit. To me, it seemed so pathetic, and I guess that's one of those moments where New York Jack is trying to fight his way through."

Balancing the character's neurosis is his experience of falling in love all over again with his long-lost sweetheart. Perhaps that, more than anything, reflected the state of Cage's professional life.

"In the last five years, I had been committing to movies with quite a bit darker edge, like 8mm or Bringing Out the Dead, and I felt like I was just ready to say this is who I am, this is what I'm going to do, and that's it from now on," the actor says. "But then it occurred to me that that's only part of it, and I wanted to change up to something that was perhaps a little more positive and life affirming, and romantic.

"I've always felt comfortable in romantic films," he adds. "There's something that occurs in the chemistry with an actress where you feel like you can go places, emotionally, a lot easier than in, say, a war picture. The love story, in every case, evokes myriad emotions because that's the way love is. So, I have a lot of fun with it and I feel comfortable in it, and I guess I was excited to get back into that mode after what, I think, has been about seven years."

That said, Cage had certain, shall we say, commitment issues with the project.

"I'm not interested in manipulation of the Hollywood sap-type of films," Cage says. "I just really want to try to find, to the best of my ability, some truth."

That was exactly the attitude that made Cage attractive to Family Man's producers.

"Movies like this are made by the casting," says one of them, Marc Abraham. "If you don't have the right star, someone with a certain amount of power, in the role, they can be slight. But if you have a great actor in the role, they can definitely rise into a different zone.

"And we had to have a guy who could believably play a titan of industry and be a fish out of water. Other comedic actors out there could mug their way through the life they were thrust into, but not easily be believed as an individual who could have been a really serious king of arbitrage."

Thus, the casting focus kept coming back to the versatile Cage. But the actor, fearing the project's high schmaltz potential, declined offers to appear in the film five times before he finally felt comfortable with Family Man's script development and its director, Rush Hour's Brett Ratner.

"It was a very painful process," Abraham admits of the rejection tango with his eventual star. "And there were times, before I knew Nic, when I really disliked him. That was because all I kept getting from his agents was "Well, he's in. No, he's out. Now he's in, now he's out,' so I thought, the hell with this guy. Even though I think he's great, I'm not going to be tortured by him every day.

"But now that I know him and had such a wonderful experience working with him, I so understand it because he's such an artist. Nic is an extremely sensitive person. I mean, he has played tough guys and done broad comedy, but actually, he's one of the most vulnerable people. He is an organism which absorbs the universe, almost, without any kind of shield around him. And I think that's why he's such a wonderful actor."

These days, at least, acting may be the only shield Cage has from a very vulnerable passage in his life. The collapse of his marriage to actor Patricia Arquette this year somewhat coincided with a work flurry that saw Cage off to the Mediterranean to film Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a World War II love story about an Italian soldier and a Greek woman from the island he's occupying, and then to Hawaii for the still-shooting Windtalkers, another World War II-set production, this one an action thriller that reteams the actor with Face/Off director John Woo.

"I am passionate about the work," he says. "If my name's on a movie, I want people to know that they can trust me and I'm not going to sell them out."

If that means constantly making unexpected choices, well, that's the thing we've always been able to count on from Nic Cage.

"Where I'm at right now is, whatever the best option in each given genre available to me, I will take," he says. "As soon as I finish Windtalkers, I'm going into something completely different from anything I've done before.

"It's the Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, and Charlie Kaufman wrote that," he says. (The same creative team was responsible for Being John Malkovich.) "I'll play sexually frustrated twin brothers who are overweight but suffer from a particular mental disorder _ which means they may not actually be overweight, but that's how they see themselves.

"Yeah, it's out there."

It's hard to think of a place where Cage would rather be.