We may like to think we’re cutting some kind of cultural edge, but in terms of movie watching, Americans have become retrogressively old-school: Our indoctrination in the rigid genre codes of the New Hollywood—”arc,” happy endings, facile character redemption, transparent moralism—is as thorough as it was in the 1940s. If a mainstream movie detours onto the pitted back roads of more honest narrative strategies, the experience can seem like being lost in a snowstorm without a guide rope. This is what happens in The Weather Man—if it’s the most supremely odd American film of the year, that’s because it sets us up, amiably enough, for ripe horseshit and then delivers something else entirely. Or doesn’t deliver at all, but just is: a shallow study of floundering American dreamism that dares to let unresolved issues and festering unhappiness remain that way. You expect glib answers and throat-forced satisfactions, but they never come. If that’s a spoiler for you, your gears may be cranked too tight.
Were screenwriter Steve Conrad and hack for hire Gore Verbinski—who seems here to be palpably searching for the heart and brain no one knew he had—trying for a 1960s–’70s, menopausal-working-stiff New Wave anti-drama (think Save the Tiger; Rabbit, Run; Pocket Money)? Nicolas Cage’s titular semi-hero, David Spritz (né Spritzel), is a hangdog Chicago TV news meteorologist (he has no training or degree and admits his idiotic, overly paid job doesn’t need them) at the center of a middle-upper-class meltdown. Spritz’s renowned novelist father (Michael Caine) is permanently disappointed in him, his ex-wife (Hope Davis) is justifiably appalled by his every fuckup, his obese 12-year-old daughter (Gemmenne de la Peña) is on the edge of complete noncommunication, and his teenage son (Nicholas Hoult) is finishing up rehab but otherwise contentedly exhibits no need for a father. Pelting Spritz on the street with half-consumed fast food is a homegrown sport of the Chicago populace. But this maddening schlub’s most monstrous problem is himself: He’s self-esteem-free, terminally uneasy with virtually everyone, reliable only to do the wrong thing, and ill equipped to handle others’ unpredictable emotions. The unforecastability of everything, from weather systems to his own temper, grinds Spritz’s teeth; as the story threads roll out (the father’s lymphoma, a national morning show summoning Spritz to New York), the seriocomic degradations only snowball, and Spritz futilely struggles toward the same fake triumphs that movies, not life, always promise.
Cage makes for a squirmingly inept everyman, but even he resists showboating. Verbinski doesn’t exactly paint with a fine brush—a running discussion of the term “cameltoe” is eventually illustrated with a cutaway to a dromedary’s foot—but it’s the disillusioned shape and texture of The Weather Man that fascinates me. The specific nature of this imploded family is disarmingly particular (they all curse too much, talk about cursing too much, and then helplessly curse some more); de la Peña’s impenetrably sullen pre-teen has to be the new century’s most realistic, and least cute, movie problem child. Never less than lighthearted, Verbinski’s film is finally rather terrifying, a well-intentioned breadwinner’s nightmare of male inadequacy.