One of the biggest downers to emerge from a major studio in recent memory, “The Weather Man” is an overbearingly glum look at a Chicago celebrity combing through the emotional wreckage of his life. Aiming for an Alexander Payne-style synthesis of wry comedy and unflinching character study, pic has been made with the utmost sincerity, but the frankly lugubrious material and barely compensating spasms of humor are all but impossible to warm to, spelling an uncertain B.O. forecast for Paramount.
Uncertainty itself is one of the driving themes of Steven Conrad’s script, which treats its protag’s vocation as a blunt metaphor for the often cruel and unpredictable nature of fate. At first glance, fortune would seem to have smiled on David Spritz (Nicolas Cage), a successful Chicago weather reporter who’s in the running for an even more prestigious job at Gotham-based morning show “Hello, America” (hosted, in an odd cameo, by Bryant Gumbel).
As weather men go, though, Dave has more lows than highs. He’s constantly struggling to win the approval of his father Robert (Michael Caine), a dour Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose literary gifts appear to have bypassed his son.
Dave also tries in vain to repair his relationship with ex-wife Noreen (Hope Davis), who’s started dating another man (Michael Rispoli), and to reconnect with their two children.
Absent any real connection to his dad, son Mike (“About a Boy’s” Nicholas Hoult) ends up getting closer than he should to a creepy counselor (Gil Bellows). Meanwhile, overweight daughter Shelly (Gemmenne de la Pena), who casually smokes when no one’s looking, sullenly rebuffs her dad’s efforts to reach out to her by taking her ice-skating or teaching her archery. The dynamic here — famous father, plus-size daughter — at times suggests a simpler and more benign version of the relationship depicted in Agnes Jaoui’s superb French-language “Look at Me.”
But where that film wisely refracted its storytelling through multiple perspectives, helmer Gore Verbinski insists on digging solely into Dave’s head, which turns out to be a singularly unrewarding place to spend 100 minutes. It would take a filmmaker of a certain sardonic temperament, i.e. Payne (“About Spritz,” anyone?), to wring both laughter and tears from this scenario, and the filmmakers here ultimately are not up to the challenge.
Cage, sporting one of his least flattering haircuts, makes Dave a writhing mass of insecurities who, in his own words, “can’t knuckle down.” His Dave is by turns feckless, absent-minded and intensely irritable, capable of extreme profanity and even physical violence when provoked. To Cage’s credit, it’s a warts-and-all perf, completely stripped of vanity. But there’s something crushingly over-deliberate, even suffocating, about the ways the pic chooses to wallow in the character’s misery, especially the nonstop voiceover — essentially a plea for sympathy that becomes more distancing every time it’s used.
In the most tiresome (and heavily marketed) running gag, Dave’s local celebrity status has made him a figure of perpetual scorn on the streets, as drivers regularly heave sodas, shakes and other fast-food products at him out of their car windows. Gag constitutes either a revelatory look at the downside of fame or the most organic use of product placement in some time.
As a woman trying to stay on good terms with her ex while maintaining a firm emotional distance, the ever-terrific Davis has an invigoratingly tonic effect on the proceedings. It’s a refreshingly self-assured characterization that, in some ways, stands in for the audience as a direct rebuke to Dave’s frumpy sad sack.
Caine’s gloomy turn as Robert is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the picture, though he does eventually let down his guard — and delivers the film’s key line — with typical grace and understatement. As Dave’s mother, Judith McConnell has so few scenes it’s a wonder she wasn’t written out.
Verbinski, on reprieve from the swirling acrobatics of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, works overtime to sustain a depressive low-key mood and rhythm, while Hans Zimmer’s score provides a jangly, percussive echo of the protag’s neuroses. Making the most of pic’s Windy City locales, Phedon Papamichael’s impressively bleak, wind-chilled lensing is enough to give viewers frostbite.