The conditions of youthful alienation, middle-aged misery, and old-age regret may be bad for the heart, but they’re good for art and, face it, great for indie filmmaking. Show me a reasonably contented, emotionally mature fellow with satisfying ties to family and community and I’ll show you a guy who has probably never toyed with producing a screenplay influenced by Garden State, In the Company of Men, Happiness, or American Beauty. By now, the indie cinema of anomie, disappointment, and stifled rage is such a familiar genre that within two minutes of affectless voice-over and establishing shots of dead-eyed Americans drinking Big Gulps, we know everything we need to know about the contemporary quagmire in question except, perhaps, which route of indecision and eccentric behavior the antihero will follow on his path to accepting that, for grown-ups, life sometimes sucks.
The Weather Man is what indie misery looks like when re-created by one of Hollywood’s big studios: The emotional visibility is atmospherically limited, but the job of making a muted, intimate picture has been given to Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, whose instinct is to make something big and the opposite of ruminative. Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage), the sad sack with the title job, is a Chicago TV personality whose earliest misery was, no doubt, some dumb joke about the surname he inherited from his forebears. Actually, the family name is Spritzel, proudly carried by his father, Robert (Michael Caine), a prize-winning author. Spritz is what happened to Dave when he became a talking head: He knows how to sparkle in front of the camera, but he fizzles off screen every day of his life.
Dave is dazedly related to an irritated ex-wife (Hope Davis), an overweight and unhappy daughter (Gemmenne De la Peña from Erin Brockovich), and a teenage son (About a Boy’s Nicholas Hoult, growing up nicely) who, while kicking drug problems, can’t distinguish between kindness and predatory sexual interest from his counselor (Gil Bellows). And then there’s Dave’s father, who conveys a sense of lifelong disappointment with his son. Robert affects a tyrannically prissy ignorance of the pop culture in which Dave has achieved a middling measure of success. And in response, Dave has, until now, preferred emotional stupidity and interior blankness to self-awareness. But now, Robert has announced that he’s dying. Dave’s ex has announced that she’s remarrying. Dave’s daughter hasn’t announced anything, but the inappropriately unflattering clothing she wears screams self-loathing. And Dave, with a shot at a high-visibility job at a fictional morning show very much like Today — Bryant Gumbel even plays himself as the Hello America anchor — must decide whether it’s okay to be…Dave: sometimes disappointing or disappointed, sometimes clumsy or foolish, and sometimes a disposable celebrity who gets pelted with junk food by strangers — but sometimes, too, just a decent, well-paid, reasonably appreciated, lucky SOB.
Now is as good a time as any to mention that in contemplating his own stasis, Dave takes up archery, one of those metaphor-laden activities with hits, misses, and bull’s-eyes so beloved by writers and embraced by cinematographers partial to long shots of lone archers taking aim at outdoor ranges against wintry skies. The Weather Man luxuriates in its own decorative dreariness — the oppressiveness of malls, traffic, TV studios, doctors’ waiting rooms, Chicago weather — but it enjoys its own words even more; the movie is an illustrated short story, rather than a discrete cinematic invention.
And the imbalance influences every performance. Cage uses the dampened inside voice he perfected for Adaptation — so defeated, so in denial of feelings — but the tonelessness only serves to expose the self-consciousness of the dialogue and deadened voice-over in Steven Conrad’s screenplay. Given no direction about who the ex-wife is — the women in this picture, including Dave’s mother and daughter, are placeholders, not people — Davis can only produce a standard-issue approximation of a once-loving wife who has lost interest in understanding her former mate’s neuroses. Even Caine, a wily vet, gives up on defining the implacable father he plays. ”That’s quite an American accomplishment,” he says coolly, proffering wound and compliment in the same breath as he congratulates his son on the glitzy new TV job. But the reasons for Robert’s snobbery, his hauteur, his own disappointment in ”this s— life” are never defined. In The Weather Man, the forecast is a never-ending hail of life’s crap. But there’s no compelling reason to believe the messenger.