Gore Verbinski’s career as a director has been all over the place, from the slapsticky (“Mouse Hunt”) to the quirky (“The Mexican”), from the terrifying (“The Ring”) to the swashbuckling (“Pirates of the Caribbean”). My admiration for “The Mexican,” an overlooked gem from 2001 starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, makes me especially glad to see “The Weather Man,” which shares its strange sense of humor and its unusually adept mix of laughs and sentiment. I’d like to see another horror movie from Verbinski, but in the meantime, another satisfying comedy is a treat.
This is a movie about a depressed man, which means it will be low-key and without a lot of bold, flashy humor, except when it wants to shock us. It’s similar in that regard to “About Schmidt,” which was also about a man who didn’t know what to do with himself. In “The Weather Man,” we have David Spritz (Nicolas Cage), who performs the title function for a Chicago TV station but has his eye on a national gig on “Hello, America” (hosted by Bryant Gumbel, who has a cameo).
In fact, he’s counting on getting that job: He thinks it will repair his heavily damaged life. He and his wife Noreen (Hope Davis) have split up, and he desperately hopes for reconciliation. She regards him with pity, however, as the inconsiderate loser he is. A workshop they attend that is meant to strengthen trust between squabbling partners is a particular disaster.
Their children, who live with Noreen, are 12-year-old Shelly (Gemmenne de la Peña) and 15-year-old Mike (Nicholas Hoult). Shelly is overweight, morose, and as bored with life as her dad is. Mike has had problems with marijuana and now has a problem with his drug counselor (Gil Bellows), who has taken an unseemly interest in him. Mike is aimless, too.
The only happy one is David’s father, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Spritzer (Michael Caine), a great man, a great father and a great grandfather. He should be disappointed in his strangely ineffectual son, but he’s too good a man to cast aspersions on anyone. Early in the film, he learns he has lymphoma.
Passersby occasionally throw things at David, partly because he’s wrong about the weather, partly because his TV catchphrases annoy them, partly because they know he has a six-figure income and a ridiculously easy job. In short, nothing in his life is what he expected it to be. He didn’t plan to be separated from his wife, he didn’t plan for his father to be dying, and he didn’t plan to be pelted with McNuggets on a regular basis.
Steve Conrad’s screenplay lays bare many of mankind’s neuroses and quirks — the desire to be alone conflicting with the desire to feel needed, for example — to demonstrate the futility of David’s existence. In narration, David confides in us the way he would a therapist: How did I get so screwed up? How can I fix my life?
Yet despite David’s depression, this is not a depressing movie — quite the opposite, actually. Verbinski uses the dreary Chicago winter to reinforce the gray tone of David’s life, and he maintains what you’d call a “deliberate” pace — but he also uses blunt humor (occasionally in the form of creative swearing and name-calling, at which Nicolas Cage excels) to paint a picture of a man who can’t seem to succeed no matter how hard he tries, a situation that is funny if you think about it, unless it’s happening to you.
I always enjoy Cage more in comedic roles than serious ones, and he’s in fine form here. He actually tones the performance down a bit, giving us a character who is funny without being ridiculous (which is where many of his action-movie characters wind up), and even sentimentally effective in some of the key emotional scenes.
His supporting cast is extremely useful, too: the reliable Hope Davis and Michael Caine are true to form, and Nicholas Hoult (grown up since “About a Boy”) and Gemmenne de la Peña are wonderfully odd as his children, one naive and the other sullen.
The film’s ultimate point has to do with David’s epiphany, and it’s a funny, tortuous path that takes us there. You can’t really predict how your life is going to turn out any better than you can predict, say, the weather. All you can do is take guess and hope for the best — and it’s the hoping that makes it fun.
B+ (1 hr., 41 min.; )