Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 15, 2005 8:40 pm 
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Do they know what they're doing?

Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage) is a Chicago TV weather man. On the outside he's an amiable fall guy whom people come up and talk to, but also throw fast food at from passing cars. They may resent him because his predictions are often wrong, as weather predictions are -- "it's all wind," he says at one point -- or they may just think he makes too much money for too easy a job. Like Samuel J. Bicke, Sean Penn's character in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Dave's separated from his wife and kids but keeps imagining they're going to welcome him back. There's an edge of desperation about Dave Spritz as there is about Samuel Bicke. But there's a big difference because Spritz comes from another class, and he's both comfortably off and good at his silly job. In the course of the movie he gets offered the weather man spot on a national show out of New York, "Hello, America."

Dave is humiliated by the fact that his father Robert Spritzel (their real name), played with restraint but the unintentional edge of an Irish accent at times by Michael Caine, is a great American novelist -- someone on the level of Chicago writer Saul Bellow -- who's won many awards since he was young. Robert is a mensch on a level Dave can only dream of and his mere existence is a living reproach. When Robert learns he has lymphoma and hasn't long to live he becomes not just a reproach but a threat: Dave wonders if he can make something of himself before his father is gone. Dave's place in his wife's affections has been taken by another man. His 15-year-old son Mike (Nicholas Hoult) is just coming off a drug rehab program. Mike and one of his counselors is going to get in trouble not the boy's fault. Dave's inarticulate, overweight daughter Shelly (the admirable Gemmenne de la Peña) may be the butt of ridicule among her classmates. Dave doesn't have any more control over these things than he has over the weather. And he isn't a meteorologist; he has to consult with one at the station every day. It's winter in Chicago, and the weather is lousy.

All these situations churn around in the screenwriter's pot, but the focus is on Dave. Dave wants to get things right. Even when he's pelted with Big Gulps or burritos, he rarely loses his temper, though he hates being recognized. Fame brings him extra money for appearances, but it's a liability and a source of drive-bys that muss his suits. He has to put up with people approaching him and asking, "What's the 'Spritz nipper' this week?" at the times when he'd rather not think about his onscreen gimmicks. Through all this Dave is a dynamo of optimism, really. Underneath the schlub there's a high achiever, and Cage is ideal for the role because he himself embodies both personality types.

It's because the whole movie carries through this balance that it's interesting. The screenplay of The Weather Man can be obvious, but it still doesn't give itself away too much. The dad isn't exaggeratedly reproachful. Caine, the perfect screen actor anyway because of his restraint, even avoids any of his usual mannerisms here and nothing's left but quiet dignity. Cage and Caine make an odd combination, but this is an odd movie, and on some level it works. Hope Davis as Dave's wife isn't ever once the least hostile or mean or mocking. Shelly isn't sullen or ugly. Mike isn't really a problem at all, even though his situation makes him look like one. He's moving toward a meltdown through most of the movie, but he's really a good kid. The two children are both completely innocent. Dave's mishaps are low-keyed and nothing is played for laughs or melodrama. When he gets hit with a slushy, it's a real annoying event, not a visual joke. The movie is drenched in irony, but it's not a smug or mean kind of irony.

The Weather Man's linchpin gesture is Dave's archery. It becomes his saving grace, his Zen, his defiance of the world. Presumably it plugs him into some primitive elemental level of existence where he's not emasculated. He reaches it through a failure. He takes Shelly to archery lessons because he thinks she needs exercise. It's a useless gesture. She isn't interested. Eventually the final joke is that when Dave becomes a top level weather man, he goes around with a bow and arrows, and that's one good reason why people don't throw fast food at him any more. But maybe it's because he's in New York. You may wind up thinking The Weather Man is false because it has some hope, but it's the hope of lowered expectations (even if it gives those the typical Hollywood cushion of a million-dollar job). "In this shit of a life," Robert says, "you just drop things."

The Weather Man has moments of preaching but it doesn't have answers. A good way to see what it has going for it is to compare it with Sam Mendes' American Beauty. American Beauty is an enjoyable movie full of glib gestures of defiance but it ends in escape, desperation, and death. Cage's character starts out rather like Kevin Spacey's, but Dave doesn't cop out or tune in. Maybe he's incapable of that, but at the end he's a mensch in his own eyes and, judging by the end of the fast-food peltings, in other people's as well. The trouble is that as one critic put it Cage "makes for a squirmingly inept everyman," and you can only like him so far. Beyond that he's just a schlub in an overcoat. Like Jarhead, Mendes' new movie, The Weather Man offers more satisfactions than the critics have seemed to see, but it's also true that we can't be sure if either director is completely aware of what they are accomplishing and failing to accomplish.

Gore Verbinski is regarded as a schlockmeister for making the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The Weather Man may be his bid for consideration as a serious social commentator. It's not clear that either he or Mendes deserves that title, but their new movies can't be as easily dismissed as some think.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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