The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Weather Man

Originally published 10/28/05
Full review behind the jump

The Weather Man

: Gore Verbinski
: Steve Conrad
: Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Todd Black
: Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Hope Davis, Gemmenne de la Peña, Nicholas Hoult, Michael Rispoli

No one wears melancholy like Nicolas Cage. It’s in the eyes a bit, but also in the manic energy we’ve seen him bring to roles over the years. Nothing creates tension on-screen like a performer who we know has 1.21 gigawatts of life going on inside but only a little peephole to feed it through.

The Weather Man we get to watch him do one of his best variances on the slow-motion freakout. He’s a man who sees everything in life as a source of his misery except for the fact that he’s a miserable human being by his own design. He makes a handsome living faking enthusiasm for a couple of hours a day, but nothing is worth his real passion except petty frustrations and misunderstandings. In this entertaining but not transcendent drama, directed with a bit too much slick and not enough quirk by Gore Verbinski, we see him struggle to become the hero of his own life but come to realize that not everyone can be a hero, and clowns are important, too.

People throw things at Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage). He’s accepted it as a fact of his life – sometimes it’s milkshakes, sometimes it’s a burrito. Always fast food – he senses there’s meaning there. He’s a recognized face all over Chicago, where he delivers the local weather reports with a pasted-on grin, and each week he advises residents which day will be the “Spritz Nipper” – the coldest day.

His name is fake, and his audience knows it’s fake, and that breeds resentment. In Los Angeles we have weathermen named “Johnny Mountain” and “Dallas Rains”, so I understand this. His real name is Spritzel, and he’s the son of Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine), who is patient and polite and a bit of a genius. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has a way of looking at Dave which is not judgmental or unloving. It’s just that the father seems confused by the way his son’s life has unfolded. Caine’s performance has so much dignity and restraint to it you might miss all the just right moments he’s creating.

He used to play tennis with Jimmy Carter, and in the twilight of his life he’s dealing with a grandson (About a Boy’s Nicholas Hoult) whose drug counselor (Gil Bellows) spends too much out of the office time with him, and a sullen, overweight granddaughter (Gemmenne de la Peña) who gets called “Camel Toe” at school and has a misunderstanding about what that means. And his son gets Big Gulps chucked at him, and he doesn’t even know what a Big Gulp is.

There’s nothing wrong with him as a father except that things have generally worked out for him, and they haven’t worked out for his son, who toils away at night on a lousy spy novel and auditions for a job on the national morning program “Hello America”. Dave thinks working with Bryant Gumbel and making a seven-figure salary will help him undo his divorce. That his wife (Hope Davis) hates everything about him is something he hasn't factored in. He also has an unerring habit of picking the wrong way to try and help his kids, like when he tries to inspire his daughter to finish an ice skating event with him and she tears her MCL.

This is as much as the movie has to offer in the plot department. The script by Steve Conrad (Wrestling Ernest Hemingway) is a perceptive meditation on distinctly-American brands of mediocrity and fame, as well as our myths about what will give us satisfaction in our lives. The point is that life is hard and filled with indignities, but our culture teaches us too many ways to shun the hard work and outsource the blame for our unhappiness. On any given day you can end up feeling like Dave Spritz, it’s just that he feels like this every day.

There’s a lot I love about this movie. Cage and Caine are unpredictably well-suited on-screen, the vast difference in energies they deliver as performers helps underscore their gulf as characters. I love the minutiae about archery. I love how often Dave Spritz’s intimates ask him how he’s doing and how quickly and falsely he assures them he’s fine. He breaks this habit at a great moment.

And Chicago is the right town to set it in, the filmmakers do us a great service by genuinely using the city and all its rich parts, rather than just sneaking in a couple of skyline shots and filming in Canada. The snow-dusted breaking ice on the lake looks like bird feathers, and the bricks and towers and jammed one-way streets make the background a real, breathing character. Weather is a major factor of life in Chicago, and the difficulty of accurately predicting it begins to grip Dave Spritz with a panic, because it’s all about wind, and nobody really knows which way it’s going to go.

I don’t have any major complaint against Verbisnki’s handling of this material except that it seems a little too polished. It’s capable and handsome and knows where the jokes are. But his commercial streak (he also directed The Ring and Pirates of the Carribean) keeps his timing too conventional and it exposes the meandering shape of the script. It’s a story about misfits that’s not being observed by a misfit. You can imagine what extra grace notes a Spike Jonze or Alexander Payne might have found. I’ll take the movie that’s been given me, but think that it had bigger potential in it.


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