Imagine a newborn taking in that first gasp of air, his terrified eyes trying to absorb the glare of the delivery room floodlights. In "The Weather Man," that is precisely the expression in Dave Spritz's eyes at any given moment, whether he's calling the weather for a Chicago TV station or trying to make sense of his disastrous personal life. He may be an adult in the physiological sense but, existentially speaking, this guy's in diapers.
Gore Verbinski's movie is a dirge of sorts, an affecting lamentation for a man (Nicolas Cage) who seems successful but is hopelessly lost in the blizzard of his personal life. The professionally accomplished man as family failure has been a staple for at least 20 years, thanks to the likes of "Wall Street," "Regarding Henry" and "Fatal Attraction." But unlike the Michael Douglases and Harrison Fords of those pictures -- all loftily positioned in society -- Dave's closer to the dirt. This isn't about the moral education of another Master of the Universe. It's a humbler, more involving story about a man crawling his way up to the daylight.
There he is, seemingly confident in the TV lights, telling Windy City residents about the "Spritz Nipper," when a cold front will be at its nastiest. He seems to understand the sound bite lingo of sleet, hail and rain, but he doesn't know the first thing about meteorology. He just reads the teleprompter, eyes aglaze.
On the street, everybody, it seems, either wants to pester him for predictions or simply toss fast-food projectiles at him. He walks with a permanent wince, ready to duck from the Slushees, burgers and tacos that regularly spatter his winter coat.
Dave has profanity-laced arguments with his recently divorced wife, Noreen (Hope Davis), at her front door; he's forever playing catch-up with his two children, who could use a little intervention. Shelly (Gemmenne de la Pena), his overweight 12-year-old daughter, smokes cigarettes and seems eternally depressed, and 15-year-old Mike (Nicholas Hoult) meets regularly with a drug counselor (Gil Bellows).
The only friendly presence in Dave's life is his father, Robert (Michael Caine), an accomplished writer who also lives in Chicago. Soft-spoken, assured and unwaveringly ethical, he's Dave's inspiration but also a source of intimidation.
"Easy does not enter into adult life," says Robert, who has grim medical news of his own to impart.
When Dave makes the short list to be the weatherman on a national show, it feels like some sort of validation and a chance to turn things around. The money would be great. He'd be in New York City. But he'd also leave an unsolved mess behind, including his father's new battle with lymphoma.
What gives added heft to "The Weather Man," written by Steven Conrad, is Dave's latent conscience. He's fully aware of his shortcomings and, despite his helplessness, never loses sight of his children's struggles. He watches them like a sibling, as if to say, "You having a hard time of this, too?" The stirrings of change are already there.
Who better to climb out of this vale of semi-cluelessness than Cage? No one can play as sympathetically flawed as he. Whether he's the alcoholic pouring vodka down his throat in "Leaving Las Vegas," the romantically impulsive Ronny in "Moonstruck," or the manic, tic-ridden father in "Matchstick Men," he turns whole movies in his favor. In "Weather," he does it again, charmingly goofy as he good-naturedly throws a snowball at Noreen but cracks her eyeglasses; touching when he patiently persuades Shelly to take up those archery lessons again.
He's comical, too, when he gets so enthusiastic about archery, he learns it himself. When he starts carrying his own bow around town, it certainly dissuades the food throwers. Dave may be a "loser," whose cursing could make death row prisoners blush, but you want to follow him everywhere.
Is that because he's Nicolas Cage or because the movie's well made? It feels like both: "The Weather Man" has deceptively profound minimalism. Life's real challenges, it tells us, aren't Robin Hood adventures. They're far more dull and mundane. It takes a lowercase heroism to persevere with sullen children, make relationships work, or exude dignity when there's warm pie all over your shirt.
When Dave convinces Shelly she looks better in dresses than those crotch-clutching jeans, or when he goes after that drug counselor, whose friendliness toward Mike conceals something scuzzier, you may not hear surging and swelling strings on the soundtrack. But you can feel the implicit hallelujah, and you mentally loosen your coat because there's a warm front on its way.
The Weather Man (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for nudity and relentless profanity.