What's it like to be a highly paid, highly visible professional buffoon in the midst of an existential crisis? This is the question posed by "The Weather Man," a surprisingly wry, contemplative movie directed by Gore Verbinski ("Pirates of the Caribbean") from a darkly funny and poignant script by Steven Conrad.
It takes a minute to settle into the idea that "The Weather Man," a big studio movie, is really just a movie about a guy who has some stuff to work out. But that's more or less it. At once a frank, funny character study of a not very likable character and a timely philosophical riff on the culture of mediocrity, "The Weather Man" deals in themes usually left to indies. But the combination of Phedon Papamichael's impressive cinematography, which turns Chicago's frozen canyons, gray crushed-velvet sky and cut-glass lake into a mythical landscape, and Nicolas Cage's and Michael Caine's restrained and nuanced performances make the movie feel at once intimate and epic — Homeric, even, as its protagonist navigates treacherous emotional states and familial crises to arrive at a place of, if not peace exactly, then at least exhausted acquiescence.
You're not exactly supposed to like Dave Spritz (Cage), a Chicago weatherman who makes $250,000 a year in exchange for, as he puts it, "very little effort and contribution." But it's hard not to empathize with him. For a guy who earns a living from his likability, no one in his life seems to like him very much, least of all him. Dave's problem, or one of them, is that he can't help but notice that he owes his success mostly to a culture-wide lowering of the bar. He doesn't have a degree in meteorology, nor is he particularly good at predicting the weather. What he has is a "refreshing" name (shortened by a producer from "Spritzel"), a knack for waving his arms convincingly in front of a green screen and the kind of nonthreatening, exalted everyman quality that inspires familiarity and random hostility in equal measure.
Dave can't wait in line at the DMV or pick up his daughter from ballet class without being hit up for an autograph or, worse, pelted with milkshakes, piping-hot fried apple pies and Big Gulps from passing cars. Shakes notwithstanding, he has been asked to audition for a spot on a "Today"-style national morning show hosted by Bryant Gumbel, which would lead to national exposure and a salary of almost a million dollars a year.
By every standard contemporary measure, Dave is a winner. He lives in the kind of glass-and-steel tower that is the natural habitat of movie alpha males, and his family resides in a stately North Side manse. But he is brought down by the littlest things — or at least he lets himself believe that he is for as long as he can. It's easier to conclude that his marriage ended over some forgotten tartar sauce or that his father's disapproval stems from his not being able to get change for a newspaper, but as his father, Robert Spritzel (Caine), tells him, "Easy doesn't factor into grown-up life." The thing is, it does in Dave's, at least to some extent — so rather than bolster his confidence, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity only deepens his sense of doubt.
Plus, he's got problems. Dave's ex-wife, Noreen (Hope Davis, excellent as ever), with whom he still hopes to reconcile, is engaged to another man. His son, Mike (Nicholas Hoult), is smoking pot and receiving some creepy attention from his drug counselor, Don (Gil Bellows). His daughter, Shelly (Gemmenne de la Pena), is overweight, unhappy and terminally apathetic. And his father, a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner and steadfast family man, seems to look at his son with a mixture of bewilderment, disappointment and concern.
If Dave's family situation sounds familiar, the particular pitch of his crisis is not. "The Weather Man" is no rote exercise in movieland redemption. Robert represents a standard of excellence to which Dave aspires but is finally realizing he'll never achieve. As for Robert, those standards have been buried by a junk culture he can't comprehend — it's gotten to the point where he doesn't even understand the language. Horrified by the things his son and grandchildren have to endure — hurled fast food, humiliating taunts, perverted advances — he goes on an impotent rage against words: "What is this? What is this? What's all this 'chucking' and 'sucking' and 'jacking?' "
(And yet it still takes Robert to clue Dave in on Shelly's suffering through ballet class, and that the kids at school are calling her names because of the way her snug clothes reveal more than they should — all of which Dave is too self-absorbed to notice.)
The other factor in his depression is more existential: Dave can no longer imagine that things might somehow turn out differently for him. At the peak of his career, he is coming to terms with who he is even though who he is causes him no small amount of shame. Dave's attempts to connect with Shelly are particularly painful and tender, as Shelly is about as transformed by the father-daughter archery lessons and afternoon shopping sprees as Dave is by the hovering promise of Al Roker-level stardom. If anything, her painful awkwardness highlights Dave's own hangdog feelings of impotence. Rather than jump at the offer at "Hello America," he approaches it gingerly, like a man on his way to the gallows.
Originally set to open last spring, the movie was reportedly delayed due to changes in the management at Paramount and because Verbinski thought an autumn opening would be more appropriate for a movie that takes place during the bleakest part of a Chicago winter. (True or not, works for me.) Or it may, of course, be a sign that the studio had no idea how to sell the movie, an issue that often leads to rumors of failure. Be that as it may, I've always disliked the idea of the marketing cart being put before the horse — the horse just ends up getting hurt. Ultimately, the most problematic thing about "The Weather Man" is also the most interesting: It fits into no discernible niche. Instead, it's a sincere, well-put-together movie about the modern human condition. Hopefully, this will be enough to attract curiosity. After all, it's nice to get into someone else's head for a while, even if the head is being used for target practice.
'The Weather Man'
MPAA rating: R for strong language and sexual content
Times guidelines: Contains strong language, a sex scene and suggested advances from a pedophile. Also includes underage swearing, smoking, implied drug use.
A Paramount Pictures release. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Steven Conrad. Produced by Todd Black, Steve Tisch, Jason Blumenthal. Director of photography Phedon Papamichael.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times