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Movie review: 'The Weather Man'

Tribune movie critic

3½ stars (out of four)

In "The Weather Man," Nicolas Cage, a great oddball movie star who sometimes takes enormous risks, has a good, risky part again. Cage plays star Chicago TV weatherman Dave Spritz, an outwardly prosperous, inwardly melancholy guy whose family life falls hellishly apart just as his thriving career seems poised on the brink of a national breakthrough.

Cage's big, sad, soulful eyes and volatile personality make him ideal for offbeat types like this: for tragic losers like the alcoholic agent of "Leaving Las Vegas" or flawed winners like Dave. A resounding failure as son, husband and father, a near pathological foul-up in his family life and a regular target for hostility and derision from extreme detractors in his audience—who keep pelting Dave's tailor-made suits with Slurpees and other fast-food trash—he's also, ironically enough, a top candidate for the weather slot on a fictitious national morning news show called "Hello America," hosted by ex-"Today" star Bryant Gumbel.

"The Weather Man" could use more comedy, but it is an effective demolition job on some debilitating aspects of modern media culture and the sidestepping of morality and family bonds. As Dave morosely tells us his story, in glum voice-overs, the moviemakers—director Gore Verbinski and writer Steven Conrad—join in visually undercutting his seeming "success" in Chicago and with the hokey, nationally broadcast "Hello, America."

Almost teasingly, they juxtapose scenes of the network reps wooing Dave with the mess he's made of his life: exasperating his ex-wife Doreen (Hope Davis), who's ready to marry another man (Michael Rispoli as non-famous but reliable Russ) and disappointing his famed novelist father Robert (Michael Caine), who's dying of cancer. Woundingly, they also show what's happening to his troubled kids: outcast, overweight daughter Shelly (Gemmenne de la Pena) and son Mike (Nicholas Hoult), who becomes the prey of a pederast high school counselor (Gil Bellows).

Most tellingly, they reveal how Dave's "success" is an empty chimera. On air for minutes a day, with a forecast supplied by somebody else and a chirpy on-camera style that includes silly weather-shtick like "the Spritz Nipper" (coldest day of the week), non-meteorologist Dave is himself a media illusion. His only real talent is his ability with the "blue screen": deftly pointing out things he can't see on a weather map that isn't really there. (Cage's coach was WGN chief meteorologist Tom Skilling.) Even Dave's name is a phony, changed from his dad's "Spritzel"—though not for the semi-idealistic reasons (not wanting to exploit a famous connection) that prompted Cage to change his own family name: Coppola.

All the actors are fine, including the two youngsters. But it's Cage and Caine who sear and unsettle us. Caine moves us despite his non-Chicago accent and the fact that it's a bit of a cheat to make the elder Spritzel a Pulitzer Prize-winner and turn his son into a TV clown. But it works: that extreme contrast, in the hands of these two actors, ends up becoming a resonant symbol for what's happened in communications, the way the slick vacuities of TV have drowned out the old personal voice of the printed page.

"The Weather Man" is set in winter—the first thing we see is ice breaking up and bobbing on Lake Michigan—and it's almost daringly somber, the exact opposite of the feel-good razzle-dazzle of a typical Hollywood studio product. It's not what we usually get from Verbinski, a crack visual technician/entertainer who, from "Mouse Hunt" and "The Mexican" to "Pirates of the Caribbean," has often given us big, bright, high-tech entertainments. Yet, in a way, "The Weather Man" becomes a stylized movie genre piece too: an art-house movie with an alienated protagonist in the 1960s-'70s vein of films from "La Notte" and "Through a Glass Darkly" to "Five Easy Pieces."

Like those old classics, "Weather Man" looks beautifully bleak; the tonier sections of Chicago along the lake and the river have rarely been caught as evocatively and well. And Verbinski and screenwriter Steven Conrad (whose 1993 "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway" was a moving vehicle for Robert Duvall and Richard Harris) aren't afraid to use that chilly backdrop for a more astringent mood, to rain on Dave's parade and ours.

The movie is a downer of sorts, not quite as funny as it needs to be to reassure the audience. But it's also a scathing, often right-on look at the follies of contemporary culture. It's an American media anti-success story, in the tradition of "A Face in the Crowd" or "Network," though it's smaller in compass, more intimate and less daring than either of them.

Yet, for these times, it's often daring enough. The ending of "The Weather Man" will seem "happy" only to people who are as phony as Dave, or who get turned on by Dave's late displays of machismo, with Russ and with Mike's counselor, scenes that make it seem briefly that he's seizing control of his life. In reality, "The Weather Man" is a tale of abject failure, and its forecast is gloomy. But at least, unlike Dave, it isn't pointing at illusions.



'The Weather Man'

Directed by Gore Verbinski; written by Steven Conrad; photographed by Phedon Papamichael; edited by Craig Wood; production designed by Tom Duffield; music by Hans Zimmer; produced by Todd Black, Steve Tisch, Jason Blumenthal. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: R (for strong language and sexual content).

David Spritz - Nicolas Cage

Robert Spritzel - Michael Caine

Noreen - Hope Davis

Shelly - Gemmenne de la Pena

Mike - Nicholas Hoult

Russ - Michael Rispoli

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