Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Review - The Weather Man

During the coming year the major Hollywood studios will (one hopes) produce a number of films which are much better than The Weather Man, but I doubt we’ll see another mainstream offering as downright peculiar as this for some time. The film has been billed as a comedy but, although it is often very funny, it really is anything but. It is a portrait of a man struggling to make sense of his life; attempting to make a connection with his kids, desperately trying to win the respect of his father, and hoping in vain that there his broken marriage could still be salvaged.

The film stars Nicolas Cage in a role which plays to his strengths. With his long face and weary demeanour he is perfectly cast as a man who has lost all sense of direction and is searching for a way to turn things around. The choice of director is more of a surprise. Gore Verbinski, taking time out from his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, takes the reins here and anyone looking for the straightforward exuberance he has displayed thus far in his work will be disappointed. The Weather Man may be just another story about a middle-aged man coming to terms with his life, but I’ve rarely seen such a film make so many bizarre decisions.

The man who’s reaching breaking point here is Dave Spritz (Cage), a Chicago TV weatherman. Dave doesn’t have a degree in meteorology, he simply gets told what the weather is likely to do and then stands in front of a green screen to tell the city what to expect in the coming days. Dave is well aware that he is overpaid for his ludicrously easy job and he often begs the station’s meteorologists to explain why the weather does what it does; but they fob him off and let him get on with the one thing he’s good at - standing in front of a camera and smiling. Even the status of minor celebrity doesn’t do anything for Dave, it only encourages a series of random strangers to pester him in the street and hurl fast food at him.

Dave is unhappy at work, and his home life offers little respite. He has separated from his wife (Hope Davis) and struggles to connect with his two children; teenage son Mike (Nicholas Hoult), who has gone off the rails and is in a rehab program, and his twelve year-old daughter Shelly (Gemmenne de la Pena), who is overweight and miserable. Then there’s his father Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine), a renowned author who seems to be constantly disappointed in his son; and Dave would do anything to win his approval, just once. Perhaps his upcoming interview for the weatherman job on the Hello America programme is Dave’s opportunity to make a fresh start?

The film takes place during a harsh Chicago winter and Verbinski opens with the beautiful and haunting image of ice chunks floating on the surface of the river, one of the many visual metaphors he returns to throughout the film. Dave’s world is a cold and bleak one, and The Weather Man is a surprisingly chilly movie. Perhaps in an attempt to distance himself as much as possible from his previous films, to show his development as a mature filmmaker, Verbinski has chosen to paint his picture with a distinctly grey and washed-out palette. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael - who shot Alexander Payne’s recent midlife crisis movie Sideways - makes everything overcast to give the film a wintry and gloomy air.

So why should we watch such a downbeat film concerning self-pitying TV presenter? Well, because it’s surprisingly good actually. In so many respects The Weather Man is an excellent film. Steven Conrad’s screenplay is smart, droll and insightful; offering sharply-drawn characters who engage with each other in a believable way. Viewers may balk at watching another film in which a man spends all his time questioning his place in the world, but Dave comes across as being a deeply flawed individual who is really trying to make the right choices, and the way the film addresses his existential woe feels true.

Much of the film’s success in sustaining our interest is thanks to Nicolas Cage, who gives an excellent display in the lead. In last year’s Lord of War, Cage made an arms dealer interesting and likeable, and here his innate charm and affability thankfully leavens Dave’s maudlin self-loathing. Cage has got such a distinctive face and he utilises it superbly here. There are times when you can really see the desperation and sadness in Dave’s eyes, and his cheesy grin at the end of every broadcast is hilariously insincere; it’s a terrific display. The rest of the cast is offer good support, although Michael Caine still can’t do a decent American accent, but it’s Cage’s picture and he carries it brilliantly.

But earlier on I described The Weather Man as a strange and peculiar film and you may be wondering why. Well, it comes down to the film’s treatment of Dave’s two children. Certainly, Mike and Shelley are among the most convincing depictions of a 15 and 12 year-old to turn up in a movie like this for a while (and both very well acted too), but the plot strands which they find themselves in are troubling. In Shelley’s case the film initially pokes gentle fun at her weight problem - without being cruel - but then it starts trying to get laughs from the fact that her too-tight clothes reveal a little more than they should of her genitalia. It’s a bizarre development, especially when looked at in conjunction with what happens to Mike.

Mike has a ‘trendy’ counsellor named Don (a nice performance from Gil Bellows, sadly misused) who is making every attempt to become friends with him. Soon we learn why, when he asks Mike if he can photograph him with his shirt off and makes a pass at him. What’s so damaging about this element of the script is not the subject matter, but the staggeringly facile manner with which it’s handled. This subplot is skimmed through, as if Verbinski doesn’t feel quite so confident in the murky waters he has suddenly waded into, and we are left with no sense of how this incident has affected the individuals involved. In fact it appears that this whole unsavoury episode is cooked up solely so Dave can win his son’s respect by bashing the perv on the nose; a development which is misguided to the point of being offensive. From being a smart, insightful character study The Weather Man almost lapses into some kind of mainstream Todd Solondz film, and the switch is jarring.

The Weather Man lost me a little after that, which is a shame. Conrad and Verbinski make some more strange judgement calls towards the end, and although their refusal offer a pat and redemptive climax is admirable, it causes the film to fall flat right at the end, and the lack of any sort of emotional impact is disappointing. The Weather Man is an odd concoction; an uneven affair which is hard to categorise, and even harder to love, but it’s certainly one of the most unusual mainstream offerings I’ve seen for a while and worthwhile for its willingness to venture into rather different territory for this kind of film. It’s a pity that The Weather Man’s cold front never allows a little warmth to shine through, but it still works as an interesting and perplexing depiction of an ordinary man, just trying to get by in the bleak midwinter.