Saturday, April 28, 2007

Weather Man, O Weather Man

In an opening scene in The Weather Man, Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage) practices his TV forecast in his empty office. He windmills his arms, jabs his fingers and mumbles to himself silently against a stupendous view of the Chicago skyline (which produced a big ole round of applause in this audience, God love'em). The effect is both absurdist and lonesome, and it's one that the film never strays from, though its journey, as is the characters', is to try to do so, to try to imbue the deadpan that often passes for American interactions with something more meaningful. Ultimately, the characters' mixed success is the film's complete one.

Spritz's dad is the accolade-laden author Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine bearing a rarely adopted American accent) who loves his son but regards him with a disappointment that carves into his formidable features. It says it all that Spritz has abbreviated his father's name into one that, catchy and ludicrous, is perfect for a weatherman; it's a crazy perversion not only of his father's name but his legacy. Which makes sense. Dave may make more cash than his father ever did, but he's a manchild still languishing in his old man's shadow. He mumbles, lies, betrays trusts, and drops the ball on his ex wife and children, though he tries not to. His teenaged daughter is saddled with a weight problem, terrible ennui, and an unfortunate tendency to sport, uh, cameltoes; his teenaged son, fresh out of rehab, is preyed upon by his sexually predatory drug counselor. Dave announces the weather but cannot predict it. He is perennially adorned with the dried milkshakes, apple pies and burritos that Chicagoans, furious with his bad predictions, toss at him on the street. Plus, Dave has a tendency to slap his ex's new boyfriend with a pair of gloves. When his father announces a diagnosis of terminal cancer, Dave launches a campaign to make him proud, which entails parenting his children more effectively and living with more dignity. Instead, he takes up archery and threatens to kill his ex's new boyfriend. Shit's fucked up.

If my pottymouth jars you, blame it on the bad influence of the film. For one interesting way the movie punctuates all the depressed monotones of its characters as well as of its wintry Chicagoscape is through what was once called colorful language. Everyone in the film swears — alternatively blandly, matter-of-factly and with great style — and it not only stands out because it underscores how these days Americans have backed off again from cussing (the 60s are truly over) but that the movie is not trying to sweeten its story up in anyway. These are flawed people who are all trying to grow into authentic adults who take care of themselves and each other, as well as to live not unhappily (different from happily). Sometimes such people swear — even if it does offend ratings boards.

That's the fun of this movie, and also its tragedy in terms of box office. It's about acceptance, not resignation, and we live in a culture that conflates the two. It's about accepting your fate, accepting your loved ones, accepting who you are — and who you will never be. It's an adult movie, in other words (with adult language), and Cage, who occupies nearly every scene, carries it well. I've always contended that he's made a career of cleverly passing off bad acting as good acting, and I still do still believe that there is something both manic and mechanical about the way he delivers his lines and bares his teeth. But he mines a beleaguered compassion that I now realize lurks in many of his performances even if he still speaks his lines as if he's reading them off a cue card half the time. It helps that the rest of the casting (Hope Davis as his estranged wife, especially) is so spot-on as well as that the characters are so well-written. And it helps that director Gore Verbinski complements the characters' painful disconnect with mirrors of all sorts as well as with the melancholy beauty of Chi's big skies and crowded streets.

Afterward, writer Steve Conrad (a Chicago denizen and more recently the writer of The Pursuit of Happyness) spoke as well as actor Gil Bellows (Shawshank Redemption, Ally McBeal), who embodied the sleazy drug counselor frighteningly effectively. Said Gil, "If a dad moves over, someone is going to take his place. Dave checked out and bad people took over, but he checked back in just in time."

Conrad directly addressed his rampant use of the voiceover, a technique that's so frequently abused. "I am interested in doing what I am told not to do, and people always tell you not to rely on voiceovers. So I used a lot of them." (I thought it was just a Cage thing; remember how relentlessly they were used in Adaptation?). "I tried to find that superdeep voice, the one you hear all day but barely acknowledge to yourself." An interesting point, since at first Dave's internal narration is riddled with, well, a need for Ritalin but eventually begins to match the voice he used aloud. Is true adulthood, or authenticity (not the same thing), the ability to match your internal voice with what you express to others?

Near the end of his talk, Conrad acknowledged that none of the people he writes about have friends. "They are deeply lonely people. There's something comic about that. We don't choose to be here and it's not up to us what walk of life we find ourselves in. That makes me laugh. That we are even trying is funny.

"And kind of beautiful."

No comments: