In 'Weather Man,' a cloudy forecast

Arthur Miller wanted us to see the salesman as a metaphor for the collapse of the American Dream. Now we have a new candidate for most metaphorical job description. In the uneven, bittersweet "The Weather Man," Nicolas Cage plays David Spritz (shortened from Spritzel), a forecaster for a top-rated Chicago TV show.

It's clear from the moment we first see him staring glumly into the bathroom mirror that this sad sack carries the weight of the world on his stooped shoulders.

On camera, his most inclement winter forecasts are delivered with a socko smile - he wants his viewers to know that we're all in this together. Away from the camera, though, he's isolated from affection. His marriage to Noreen (Hope Davis) has come apart, his teenage son Mike (Nicholas Hoult) is in counseling, and his daughter Shelley (Gemmene de la Peña) is sullen and overweight. His father Robert (a first-rate Michael Caine), a famous novelist, is condescending. "You don't have a degree in meteorology," he reminds David.

Nothing goes right for the weather man, not even the weather. When his predictions are off, which is often, his audience takes it personally. Throughout the film David is periodically pelted by people in cars heaving frosties and fast food as he walks the city sidewalks. He is a peculiar species of celebrity: people feel privileged to needle him in person.

Director Gore Verbinski and screenwriter Steven Conrad are too enamored of their metaphorical conceit; they never waste an opportunity to point out how zonked and bedraggled poor David has become. Yes, it's true: Life, like the weather, is unpredictable. As Robert says to his son, " 'Easy' doesn't enter into grown-up life." But is this really such a startling revelation? David is made a target for all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. (Maybe this is why he takes up archery.) He can't even toss a friendly snowball at his wife without accidentally popping her in the eye.

If anybody but Nicolas Cage were the star of this movie, it would be a big dose of blah. But, as he demonstrated most recently in "Adaptation," Cage has no peer when it comes to bringing out the emotional nuances in morose characters and making them funny - and touching.

In David's scenes with Noreen, we can see how avidly he wants to get back with her and how hemmed in he is by his own inadequacies. When he confronts her boyfriend, he loses control and sputters obscenities, and we don't dislike him for it because he cares deeply about his family - more, perhaps, than they care about him. He tries to do right by everyone even as he's coming apart.

The filmmakers aren't content to confine David's funk to his personal circumstances. They want to show us that he is a victim of a larger malaise - the culture of celebrity. By materialistic standards, he is a huge success, and the offer of a network job in New York ought to make him happy. But David is uncomfortable with wealth - this is why, despite everything, he comes across so sympathetically. The blandishments of success mean nothing unless they get him his family back. "The Weather Man" is about the meaninglessness of celebrity. David is a star but all he does is read the weather report. Stardom, in the movie's terms, is a sick joke. It does nothing to insulate David from himself.

The film is certainly worth seeing, but it should be better than it is. David is a credible Everyman, but he isn't allowed to break out of his sad trance. The filmmakers equate that trance with soulfulness. No doubt they believe they have created a modern archetype - the sensitive soul who is too frail for this crass world. But what they have concocted more often resembles a sacrificial zombie. Grade: B

Rated R for strong language and sexual content.

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