It was hard to read. It was poorly written.
— Noreen (Hope Davis), The Weather Man
When you’re making a genre picture it’s all about the language that’s been established before, and how you manipulate that language and how you play to those expectations.
— Gore Verbinski, “Extended Outlook: The Script”
“The character I play is Dave Spritz, he’s a Chicago weatherman,” says Nic Cage in his explain-the-character interview. “I point that out,” he says “because a Chicago weatherman is a whole different animal than a Los Angeles weatherman. A Los Angeles weatherman has basically one season. The weather here is so intense, it can be 30 degrees one day and 80 degrees another day.” “Forecast: Becoming a Weatherman” is one of several cutely titled documentary shorts assembled for the DVD of The Weather Man, not so much informative as it is filling space (other titles include “Relative Humidity: The Characters” and “Trade Winds: The Collaboration”). As Cage’s scrambling for significance here suggests (“The Chicago weatherman is a very important weatherman, because everyone in Chicago relies on him so much, and if he gets it wrong, it really ruins their day”), the titular designation has more weight in metaphor.
This would be the primary interest of Gore Verbinski’s film, better fleshed out in “Atmospheric Pressure: The Style and Palette,” which features discussion by Verbinski, director of photography Phedon Papamichael, and production designer Tom Duffield. “Every time we talk about look or style, we really talk about the absence of style, the absence of imposed style,” says Verbinski. As Papamichael recalls, they discovered locations literally by walking around the city with a digital camera, and Duffield’s task, according to Verbinski, was to “maintain a color palette, not to break a color palette,” the search for a way to reflect the weatherman’s “monotone life.”
The weatherman possessed of this life is the wretchedly named Dave Spritz (Cage) and the film comprises his something-like-a-midlife-crisis. Triggered by what seems like good news (he may be up for a big fat NYC morning show job, hosted by self-mocking Bryant Gumbel), Dave worries incessantly. Looking in his bathroom mirror at film’s start, he announces to himself, “That was refreshing. I am refreshed. I am refreshing.”
But he’s not. He’s tedious and capable of only the most limited sort of self-understanding. And still, he tries, in a way that might have been interesting if the film didn’t lean toward the clever rather than the complicated. Both dumb and forlorn, Dave can’t see past his mirror image, or more frequently, his image on a monitor with weather maps and rainfall stats digitized behind him: he can’t see past his performance, honed to perfection over years. While the new job — presented here as both glamorous and silly — will grant him new money, new location, and new fame, it also leaves him in the same difficult position where he begins, alone and angry.
But he can’t anticipate that, and so he spends the movie attending to details both significant and ridiculous. His lack of self-confidence is of a piece with his public identity as a tv celebrity, for whom consumers feel a mix of envy and contempt: the job seems so easy, so undemanding. Standing on line at the DMV, Dave’s approached by a fellow customer who recognizes him from tv (“What’s up dude?”) and he tries to avoid the inevitable, pretending he’s not who he is. “You don’t have to be a dick,” complains the man on line (after seeing Dave’s vehicle registration form that does indeed confirm his identity). “Go work in a bank or something if you don’t want to be cool to people.”
“People recognize me sometimes,” Dave observes in his mournful voiceover. “They think they know me but they don’t.” The film’s investigation of minor celebrity doesn’t extend much beyond this moment, though it does underline the abuses Dave endures because of it. One running gag that becomes tired after the first instance has viewers tossing fast food items at him — shakes, French fries, little pies — apparently out of rage that he gets the forecast wrong. “It’s just wind,” he says more than once, by way of explaining his inaccuracy. “It blows all over the place.”
The movie makes this point repeatedly, casting Dave as a buffeted sort. His father, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist father, Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine), disdains him, thinking that what he does is somehow unworthy. The fact that Robert, also alone and angry, in a quieter way, is grappling with his own crisis leaves Dave at something of an impasse. He’s not used to looking after anyone but himself, and accompanying his dad to the doctor’s for tests leaves Dave looking incompetent again. When Dave is unable even to muster the correct change to get his father a newspaper, Robert looks at once perplexed and reassured: Dave is exactly the screw-up Robert believes him to be.
The film tends to take Robert’s view, mostly because it’s Dave’s as well. Still, Dave imagines the new job will allow him to rejigger his life. This despite and because of the fact that his ex-wife Noreen (Hope Davis) has a new boyfriend, Russ (Michael Rispoli). When he stops by their old house uninvited, she looks at him with worry, anticipating trouble, and in this moment, thanks to Davis, you glean a bit of their difficult history. When Dave insists that his new job will give them a chance to start anew, she reminds him that she and the kids have started their new lives, that the family unit is beyond second chances.
To underline, Dave’s son Mike (Nicholas Hoult) resents his father’s abandonment (flashbacks with big-breasted women reveal that Dave was sleeping with weather “fans” before the divorce, spending more time at “work” than at home). And so the boy seeks support and solace with an obvious father figure, his counselor, Don (Gil Bellows). The movie itself takes a turn into Dave’s unsubtle and mostly frightened conception of the world when Don’s interest in Mike turns pedophilic (“Do you work out?” he asks, offering to shoot photos of the boy, shirtless).
If Dave can’t anticipate Mike’s trouble (despite and because of his own lack of fathering), he works overtime to appease his surly, frustrated 12-year-old daughter Shelly (Gemmenne de la Peña). Looking to spend money on her, Dave offers “lessons” in whatever she wants. She picks archery, then drops it about 10 minutes after he’s sprung for gear and a package deal in lessons. When he picks her up from school one afternoon, Shelly asks for cash and to be dropped off at a convenience store: “I need a notebook for school,” she lies, then steps inside to buy cigarettes instead.
Forlorn again, Dave takes Shelly’s archery lessons, learning the vocabulary and proper stance, appreciating the precision even in the face of wind. He begins to carry his bow with him on the sidewalk, a man suddenly proud, slow-motioned, and anachronistic, a walking metaphor. Again. Believing he’s found a new sense of purpose, he arrives at a family gathering with bow and arrows in hand, asserting himself by point-of-view camera. Inevitably, he learns his own lesson from this episode, but The Weather Man never makes his trajectory as rewarding for you as he seems to find it.