Artistically, this may be Gore Verbinski’s best film — certainly it’s his most ambitious and daring. And that in itself works against it in a twisted way with many film snobs crying out, “How dare this commercial filmmaker presume to tackle something weighty?” After this, they conclude that it’s not weighty at all, thereby proving the wisdom of their ire over the very idea that the man who made Pirates of the Caribbean should so overstep his bounds. Personally, I’m reasonably convinced that this same film could have been signed by Alexander Payne and it would be proclaimed a masterpiece. (I am less convinced that Payne could have made a movie this good, but that’s a separate issue.)
On the other side of the scale, we find all the people who are upset that the movie is more serious than funny — and since these are the folks who buy most of the tickets, The Weather Man’s forecast is less than sunny.
And that’s a shame, because this is one of the best films released so far this year. It may not be the most pleasant film ever made — it’s been compared (usually unfavorably) to American Beauty, though it lacks that film’s airless smugness and probably hits closer to home for most of us. This last is what makes it rather uncomfortable. It’s just a little too easy to see something of our own lives in the story of weatherman Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage), and more than a little impossible to entirely like what we see.
Born David Spritzel, the son of renowned writer Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine), Dave is the weatherman for a Chicago TV station. It’s a fairly lucrative position, but a somewhat inglorious one. As a minor celebrity, he often encounters people who think they know him, because they see him on TV. Even more often he’s attacked by people throwing fast-food at him out of anger over forecasts that don’t quite pan out the way he’s predicted. Worse, he’s estranged from wife Noreen (Hope Davis, Proof), has trouble relating to his son, Mike (Nicholas Hoult, About a Boy), and depressed, overweight daughter, Shelly (newcomer Gemmenne de la Pena) — plus, nothing he can do ever gets any respect from his father.
His big goal in life is to patch things up between himself and his family, which he thinks he can do by landing the job of weatherman on a national morning show, Hello, America, in New York. This, after all, is the top of the game he’s drifted into playing — the ultimate “American accomplishment” for him. It’s this last idea that makes Dave something of a tragic figure, since it’s predicated on the idea that becoming as successful as possible is the magic panacea for everything that’s wrong with his life. And it becomes a broader tragedy because in a certain sense, he’s not wrong — at least in the way his world works.
His efforts at achieving most of his goal invariably fall short of the mark, in part because he never fully understands what the problems are. The richly detailed screenplay by Steve Conrad (Wrestling Ernest Hemingway) follows Dave’s generally botched attempts at making himself into the person he thinks each person wants him to be — to a point where there’s almost nothing of him left, merely half-realized projections of a sad man trying to live up to other people’s presumed expectations.
Dave is self-indulgent and more than a little shallow, but as presented by Verbinski and played by Nicolas Cage, he’s essentially a pretty good guy whose life has been shaped by circumstance. One critic has said that the ultimate summation of Dave’s situation is his need to “accept his own mediocrity,” but I never got the sense that he’s mediocre so much as he’s someone who wants acceptance at the price of his own personality. In this regard, the film is a kind of American tragedy, but one that at least suggests that the tragedy needn’t run any deeper than simply realizing that it’s impossible to be all things to all people. Where many people found the film depressing, I found it more a story about accepting who you are — and, in turn, accepting who those around you are.
As filmmaking, the film is truly hard to fault. Gore Verbinski — despite the critical burden of having made a couple of movies that are simply “too popular” — really comes of age here as a major stylist who isn’t afraid of a difficult story. Better still, his style is obviously not limited to the technical side of filmmaking, but also encompasses an ability to draw uniformly strong and believable performances from his cast.
Cage has rarely been this good, and while Caine is a generally reliable actor, this is one of the best performances of his career. The two kids — Hoult and de la Pena — are remarkable, with Hoult neatly crossing from the realm of child actor in About a Boy to adolescent here.
Is this a movie for everyone? No — very few movies are, and even fewer good ones. But it is a richly rewarding work that ought to be getting a fairer shake than it has. Rated R for strong language and sexual content.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke