The existential suffering of Nicolas Cage's character in Gore Verbinski's "The Weather Man" can be traced straight back to an old B. Kliban cartoon showing two news anchors introducing the grinning idiot to their side with the words, "And now here's the weather, with our weather asshole." Cage's Dave Spritz is that weather asshole, a Chicago TV weather guy who gets no respect. He admits his job is easy money, and you have to admire his forthrightness: When you see him working his weather-guy tai chi in front of a blank green screen, you wonder, How hard could it be?
But Dave's semi-fame has a downside. He can't walk down the street without having joyriding teenagers pelt him with milkshakes and McDonald's hot apple pies. Even if those kids have never seen that B. Kliban cartoon, they've absorbed its meaning into their very bones. Dave's job has caused even bigger problems at home: Apparently, his weather-guy temperament -- whatever that is -- has caused him to become disconnected from his two kids and his wife, Noreen (Hope Davis, playing the latest in her series of perpetually annoyed characters). And he knows that his father, Robert (Michael Caine), an award-winning novelist, believes him to be something of a putz, not to mention that he's always rebuking his son for the way curse words flow so freely from his lips when his family exasperates him to the breaking point.
"The Weather Man" isn't really about weathermen per se, but about every guy (and the focus here is decidedly on men) who's ever hoisted himself up the career ladder only to look down and wonder, What have I done with my life? And you don't have to be a middle-aged man (or even just middle-aged, or a man) to sympathize with Spritz -- although even just writing that phrase somehow, inexplicably, makes me want to kick him.
That's how "The Weather Man" is designed: We're supposed to connect with Dave Spritz even as he drives us nuts. But past a certain point, the movie allows Dave to create too many problems for himself -- otherwise, we wouldn't have much of a movie, would we? And so even as "The Weather Man" attempts to deal head-on with one very real conundrum facing modern family men -- specifically, that even though they may be part of two-income households, they feel many of the same pressures as the hardworking dads who came before them, men who sometimes felt responsible for their families to the point of working themselves into an early grave -- it also buys into the idea that taking care of every single need within a family is a dad's responsibility. "The Weather Man" needs to believe in that idea so Dave can learn his lesson in the end: He can't control everything; in fact, he can control almost nothing. That's an invaluable insight for Dave, but the movie has to keep jacking up his sad-sackery level to get him there.
Most of the people in Dave's family -- with the exception of his well-grounded but somewhat naive son, Mike, played with shy charm by Nicholas Hoult (the young misfit of "About a Boy") -- are either willfully unreasonable or aggressively petulant. But Dave has a martyr complex, obviously believing, for example, that Noreen's excessive whiny exasperation is something he created in her rather than a mere personal trait, or that the unhappiness of his 12-year-old daughter, Shelly (Gemmenne de la Peqa), has been caused more by his neglect than by the fact that being a 12-year-old girl is pure hell in itself.
Dave's self-involvement is so extreme that he can't see that the bluntly human weaknesses of the people around him aren't his fault. We both pity him and want to shake him; eventually, though, we just become bored by him. We feel Dave's shame when his own father tells him that the undeniably chubby Shelly is being teased at school for wearing too-tight pants, something Dave wasn't astute enough to pick up on himself. But isn't a retired granddad perhaps more likely than a frazzled dad to catch something like that? Similarly, we never know what (if anything) Noreen does for a living. Looking after two kids is plenty, but then, doesn't she bear equal responsibility for not recognizing that her daughter is leaving the house with "camel-toe"? Mostly we just see Noreen fluttering, in her perpetual state of nervous agitation, around the large, beautiful suburban house that Dave's weather-asshole salary paid for.
"The Weather Man" strikes an odd combination of tones, mostly affecting a somber, dreary shimmer punctuated by the occasional rueful joke. (In one brief sequence, suggesting that screenwriter Steven Conrad remembers that old B. Kliban cartoon, a husband and wife watching at home debate Dave's on-the-tube charm, the wife decreeing him pleasant while the husband stands firmly on the side of "asshole.") The movie often feels overly pleased with itself: A brief flash of Shelly's pants-fitting problem is followed by a shot of an actual camel's foot, to make sure we get the point.
But there are moments when Cage (with his perpetually worried eyebrows) and Caine (with his inherent emotional elegance) carry the picture admirably enough. In one scene, Cage takes Shelly on a New York shopping spree, tactfully guiding her toward some hip, flattering outfits, capturing beautifully the way compassion and love can sometimes cut through that seemingly impenetrable father-daughter awkwardness. And Caine has a way of gazing at his son with puzzled wistfulness, maybe partly because he wishes him to be different, but mostly, I think, because he wishes Dave could shake himself free of some of this self-imposed suffering.
Caine makes you believe almost any line he's asked to utter, even scary puritanical maxims like "To get anything of value, you have to sacrifice." The movie needs ideas like that, partly to ratchet up Dave's wheel of torture but also to send us home feeling better about our own 60-hour workweeks and constantly complaining families. "The Weather Man" wants to make sure we know the outlook is always going to be partly cloudy, no matter how hard we try to change it.