casI don’t know that I can ever truly forgive Nicolas Cage. I remember when this Coppola Clansman was so into his art and craft that he ate a live cockroach for a very, very shitty horror film. Then he began taking roles in obnoxious action films halfway through the 90s. At first I assumed The Rock was a joke; a prank being played on the entire genre itself. By the time Gone in 60 Seconds came out I had written him off.

Nic Cage seems to have spent the first few years of the 21st century trying to make up for those excesses. He still doesn’t have it down pat, and he still wanders into surefire garbage like Ghost Rider, but if he keeps on this road, maybe I will one day be able to forgive him after all. Especially if that road keeps bringing him to unexpectedly edgy films like The Weather Man.

When I first heard about The Weather Man I assumed the worst, that it was some sort of pap on the level of Cage’s turn under Brett Ratner’s “directorial” eye, The Family Man. Paramount’s early ads didn’t inspire much confidence, playing the movie up as some sort of comedy where a schlubby guy learns all sorts of valuable lessons.

That was months and months ago. The film was pushed back to this week, and I think partly because Paramount had come to realize that they just weren’t selling this thing right, and that perhaps they couldn’t. After all, how do you air commercials during primetime declaring your new movie to be a misanthropic downer, a blackly comic indictment of most aspects of our modern American middle class lives?

Dave Spitz is one of the most daring characters to appear as the lead in a major film in years. People are going to walk out of The Weather Man really, really disliking him, and I don’t think director Gore Verbinski is going to mind all that much. In fact I think he may ask whether these people see something of themselves that they don’t like in Spitz.

Spitz is a local Chicago weather man, and the son of a Pulitzer-winning novelist. Spitz isn’t a meteorologist – he’s just the guy who reads the weather on the nightly news. He knows that he doesn’t deserve what he has; he knows that he’s overpaid and that he doesn’t contribute to the world. He knows that his job is essentially bullshit, just getting up in front of a green screen and guessing what the weather will be like next week. In fact the most important aspect of his job is exactly the same as Vanna White’s – the ability to point to things.

Spitz is divorced, with two children. He sleeps around a lot, using his modest fame as a way to get laid, but he hopes to one day get back with his wife. He also writes insufferably bad novels and tries and tries to get his father to approve of him. His kids are a mess, and he’s not sure how to connect with them. Meanwhile, he’s up for a job as the weather man on a national news show, which would mean moving to New York. Deep inside, Spitz is completely convinced that this new job will change his life and restore his family.

Michael Caine is the father, Robert Spritzel (Dave changed his last name when he got into TV) with one of those bad accents that makes you wonder why they didn’t just let the guy be English. Spritzel couldn’t be any less like his son, and as a man whose natural talent is in the manipulation of words he’s often utterly dumbfounded by the blunt and inarticulate way Dave and his family talks. “What’s with the sucking and the jacking and the tossing and the fucking?” he cries at one point, finally exasperated.

Spritzel has lymphoma. At one point he has a living funeral (a truly awful concept that seems to do nothing but inconvenience everyone; they’re all going to have to gather again for the real thing anyway), and then later a real one. It’s a testament to this film that none of these things become opportunities for weepy moments and lessons learned. The lymphoma doesn’t become an overbearing story element – in fact I wondered why we even needed it, since Spritz was so desperate for his father’s approval even before the illness was diagnosed.

The kids are equally unsentimental. The daughter, a squat fat little girl, may be the single least appealing looking child actor going today, and that makes her all the more endearing. She’s real, not some Showbiz Moms and Dads moppet. As an actress she’s no Dakota Fanning, but who needs that when we can see the character’s trials (she is known in school as Cameltoe because of her tight pants) in the real girls features? The son, previously the kid in About A Boy, is less impressive, but his storyline (featuring a time in rehab where he has a pedophiliac counselor played by Gil Bellows, Ally McBeal’s old boyfriend), is not as key.

There are two kinds of actresses you fall in love with. There are the glamour ones, the actresses who end gracing the pages of Maxim because they have bad managers and low self-esteem and often no acting skill, and then there are the ones like Hope Davis. Those are the ones who are beautiful and sexy but also smart and real – you can imagine having a meal with someone like Hope Davis. Does Jessica Alba even eat solid foods? Davis is Noreen, Spitz’ ex-wife, who is unable to cope with his madness and intense assholery anymore. She has the kind of role that could be awful and hateful, but Davis allows you in and makes you understand her. Sure, I’ve been on Spitz’ side of the fight when she freaks out because he didn’t bring any tartar sauce home after she requested it a thousand times, but Davis actually gives me a glimpse of the other side. (That’s the crazy side, by the way)

There’s a scene early on in The Weather Man where I sort of gave myself in to Verbinski and what he was doing. Spitz’ son is shopping at some Gap-like store in the mall and Iggy Pop’s The Passenger is playing on the store radio. It’s perfect, and it’s a wonderful statement about the debasement of the really good things in life, of how our modern America chews these things up and spits them out as jingles and product placement. There’s plenty of product placement throughout the film – Spitz is always being pelted with foods by people on the street, and it’s almost always a brand name. A Frosty, which he explains to his father is a shake from Wendys. A Big Gulp. Chicken McNuggets. At first I groaned at how obvious these placements were, but then I realized that was the point, that Verbinski was almost doing a Brett Easton Ellis with the fast food, which is everywhere. These products, these shitty and disposable and non-nutritional foods, define the world that Spitz lives in,.

Unfortunately Verbinski later makes that explicit, and it’s too bad that he couldn’t trust his audience enough to make that leap. There’s a ton of weather imagery and metaphor in the film which I also thought was too explicit, so I was happy that the product stuff was working on a subtler level. Still, I can understand being nervous about what an audience is or isn’t getting with this film. It’s not some trippy experimental film, but it’s sort of the bad tempered little brother to American Beauty. Where that film led us by the hand to false epiphanies and enlightenment, The Weather Man stubbornly refuses to bring life affirming revelations to the table, and it doesn’t even show us a lead character who has all that much of an arc.

Failure is not a subject popular in American film, unless it’s as a forge that creates a better and more successful person. But for most of us, failure is what we have to look forward to, since the society we live in has set such unrealistic goals for us. We’re not great people, we’re not special people, and maybe worst of all, we’re not even very good people, when it comes to our daily behaviour. That’s what The Weather Man is all about, and it’s the kind of subject that will have audiences leaving the theater in droves warning their friends away. When Spritz tells his dad that a gig on Hello America will pay him over a million dollar – that includes a compulsory Purina spokesmanship – his father just says, “That’s an American achievement.” It’s a bitterly truthful condemnation of that shitty carrot we’re all chasing after. Spitz can’t see that the way to fix his family is to be a better man and to love them; he thinks that money and prestige will do it all.

I described the kids in this film as unsentimental. The whole movie is like that. Sometimes I like to imagine what the late Pauline Kael, my favorite film critic, would have thought of a movie. I don’t know if she would have liked The Weather Man (although I suspect she might have reacted positively to the nasty humor running through it), but I do know that she would have appreciated the film’s utter lack of sentimentality. That alone makes it feel unique amidst the sort of big studio shit we’re usually shoveled.

Gore Verbinski is an interesting talent. I didn’t think much of him and his faux-Gilliam stylings before, but this film, which has a very different tone and feeling and style, has made me rethink him. There’s a cynic inside him, and I like any director who has that quality. And the films they make tend to be more worth seeing.

8.7 out of 10