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By Pete Vonder Haar | October 30, 2005

If movies have taught us anything (and they haven’t), it’s that every American man will one day undergo a wrenching spiritual and emotional crisis as they advance into middle age. It’s hardwired into their cerebral cortex, along with a desire to burn things and the awkward first sexual encounter. In some of the many films dealing with this phenomenon, the men in question handle these crises with something approaching dignity (Lester Burnham in “American Beauty”), though more often the opposite is true (Bobby Lee in “Middle Age Crazy”). Such situations are ripe for comedy, since nothing is more enjoyable than watching middle-class white guys having their hopes crushed, but filmmakers have to be careful to balance pathos and comedy (“Wonder Boys”) rather than letting the whole thing descend into bitterness or maudlin sentimentality (“City Slickers”).

“The Weather Man” attempts to tread this line, with mixed results. Nicolas Cage plays David Spritz, weatherman for a Chicago TV station. His job’s not that hard (David isn’t even a meteorologist), which gives him a lot of down time to contemplate life’s disappointments. Namely, his failed marriage and the growing rift between him and his kids (overweight 12 year-old Shelly has just taken up smoking, while teenaged Mike just got out of rehab), not to mention living in the shadow of his Pulitzer prize-winning father Robert (Michael Caine). Plus there’s that annoying tendency people have to pelt him with food and drink.

David is a hard guy to sympathize with, even when he’s trying to change things for the better. He pins his hopes for absolutely everything on getting a gig with a national morning news program, stubbornly believing that nothing else is required of him to improve his lot than to simply get another job. What he fails to realize is that it’s too late: the wife he hopes to reconcile with is marrying another guy, his father loves him but will never truly be proud of this decidedly inferior product of his loins, and his kids tolerate his presence, but are still growing more distant.

If you’re going to see this based on Paramount’s marketing spiel that it’s a comedy, be warned. “The Weather Man” is definitely a darker film than you’ve been led to believe. There’s a good deal of raw emotion bubbling to the service, and director Gore Verbinski doesn’t shy away from it. David is a man who knows he’s on the verge of losing it, and yet seems powerless to stop his descent. And Verbinski has deliberately set the film in the dead of Chicago’s winter, the better to capture David’s long dark tea time of the soul. There are laughs, but they’re the uncomfortable kind, resulting from seeing a diminished human being getting diminished even more.

I’m not sure if Nicolas Cage and Jerry Bruckheimer have had a falling out, but I hope it lasts. “The Weather Man” misfires occasionally, but Cage is quite believable as the man watching his life slip out of control. The father and son exchanges between Cage and Caine are definite high points, and the scene in which Robert explains a “camel toe” to David is one of the more sublime recent moments in American cinema. Some of the best performances are given by the kids, however. Gemmenne de la Peña – possibly because she actually is an awkward pre-teen – is great as Shelly, the disinterested daughter, as is “About A Boy’s” Nicholas Hoult, who plays Mike. Verbinski knows when to shift the attention away from the movie’s mopey adults, and the kids don’t disappoint.

What ultimately keeps “The Weather Man” from being a better film than it is that it doesn’t no when to quit. David’s lousy situation is established early on, yet Verbinski and writer Steve Conrad seem intent on relentlessly hammering us over the head with his travails. Worse, the resolution ends up betraying what we’ve been told the whole movie. The central thesis, repeated a couple of times, is “nothing that has meaning is easy.” And yet, in the end, David gets his dream job and everything starts to improve. Maybe that was Verbinski’s intention, to show us that, these days, being mediocre is enough.

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