I've thought long and hard before saying what I'm about to say. I've searched my memory for something to disprove it, but I can't think of anything. Here it is: The Weather Man, the new film directed by Gore Verbinski and written by Steve Conrad, is the most relentlessly pessimistic mainstream American film that I have ever seen. It seems to be telling us that over time you become a shell of the person you once were and a pathetic, ever decreasing fraction of the person you one day hoped to be. You will squander potential and become incapable of giving meaningful love to anyone that you care about. This doesn't happen as a result of some huge disaster or tragic mistake, no, this happens as a result of hundreds of minuscule failures every day. As you might imagine, this is excruciating to watch. But in creating one of bleakest portraits of contemporary American life you will ever see, Gore Verbinski also creates a film that is shockingly humane, funny, and beautiful.
Nicolas Cage, who I don't always like, gives a fantastic performance as David Spritz, a Chicago TV weather man with no degree in meteorology. The thing that makes him great in The Weather Man is that he consistently plays the part in earnest. There's plenty of opportunities to ham it up or play it for laughs, especially because David acts like such an asshole so much of the time, but Cage never falls into those traps. One feels at every turn, no matter how disgraceful his behavior, that he's just a guy trying to do what seems right to him in that moment. At one point he drops his daughter off at his ex-wife's house. When his ex-wife, played with terrific subtly by Hope Davis, remains outside for a moment he suddenly decides to throw a snowball at her, which hits her in the face and cracks the lens of her glasses. Rather than playing it like it's funny, which it is, Cage seems like he's making a sincere attempt to connect with his former wife in any way he can.
I wish with great passion that this film was truly great, but unfortunately it's just inches short. Nine out of ten times Verbinski hits the mark. From the very first shot he creates a perfectly executed world of an ice bound Chicago during the winter months. His most impressive feat though is managing to craft a film that is in some ways highly stylized, yet instinctually feels like the human experience. He has a wonderful and surprising sense of composition. One finds the characters in disconcertingly angular frames with vast expanses of empty space above their heads. In tandem with this he uses a fantastically chilly color scheme throughout. He also triumphs in his insistently measured pacing. In contrast with such a harsh statement about life, the pacing serves to lend the film a strange gentleness that allows for us to feel the characters are truly human. The pacing is absolutely vital and absolutely brave in a Hollywood film. Along with the performances, it makes one feel that the characters are being not being tortured out of gleeful spite on the part of the filmmakers, but out of profound empathy and understanding of our shared human weaknesses.
Verbinski's trouble comes in just a few isolated areas; nevertheless they are important and significantly damage the film as a whole. The ugliest problem is a woefully ill-advised quasi dream sequence in which Nicholas Cage sees himself happy and well adjusted as the grand marshal of a parade. The whole thing is presented as if his hotel room window is like a TV on which he is seeing himself. It introduces us to no useful ideas and is an immensely distracting stylistic departure. I'm really puzzled by its inclusion in a movie that on the whole demonstrates a lot of restraint. Another issue is the handling of Cage's son, who gets himself involved in a weird molestation situation with his drug counselor. This subplot is painted in the broadest of strokes, rather than with the painstaking specificity one finds elsewhere. Every time we return to the plot with the son the film begins to feel bogged down and uncharacteristically unsure of itself. Some of the blame for this surely must be shared with Steve Conrad, the mostly solid writer of the film. One wonders why Conrad and Verbinski shy away from the unbending frankness they are generally so willing to dole out. There are a few other troubling mistakes, the blame for which I have to rest on both of their shoulders. Most notably the film relies too heavily on voice-over. While some of it works very well and all of it is delivered with sincerity from Cage, there is at least twice as much as is necessary. Similarly, there are a couple flashbacks that work, but just as many that are unneeded. Also, the handling of Cage's father, who is played with solemn dignity by Michael Cane, rings a little false. He is written as a noble and stalwart man devoid of any flaws not only in Cage's mind, but apparently in real life as well. On the whole this actually works much better than it should, but I can't help but feel that there's a note missing.
The aforementioned issues aside, The Weather Man is a rare achievement and one of my favorite films of the year. It is so honest and so bleak that I can't believe that a major studio let it get made. In an industry where schlock and melodrama are passed off as great statements about us as humans The Weather Man is monumentally refreshing. I have nothing but respect for Verbinski and Conrad for having the nerve to make a film that on the one hand is crushingly negative, but on the other endlessly humane.