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In the aftermath of Katrina it seemed that movie-going had died. But then the Prytania opened, and gradually the megaplexes are returning. Worrisomely, the Canal Place remains closed "indefinitely," and with it independent or foreign films remain in short supply. That's why indie fans really want to go see Gore Verbinski's The Weather Man. Verbinski's offbeat comedy has the major stars and high production values of a major-studio release, but it possesses the quirky spirit of independent cinema at its most satisfying.

Written by Steve Conrad, The Weather Man is the story of American success and failure wrapped up in one untidy package. David Spritz (Nicolas Cage) has it made. He's the highly visible weathercaster at a highly rated Chicago television station. He owns a beautiful home, drives an expensive, late-model car, earns $240,000 a year and supplements his income with appearance fees all over the Windy City. But happy, he is not. He's separated from his bitter wife, Noreen (Hope Davis), and his two children are in trouble. Fifteen-year-old Mike (Nicholas Hoult) is in drug rehabilitation therapy, and 12-year-old Shelly (Gemmenne de la Pena) is morose and morbidly overweight. To make matters worse, David's father, Robert (Michael Caine), has just discovered he's dying of cancer.

A lesser, more conventional script would treat David as the selfish agent of his own problems, would see him as a relentless careerist who sacrificed his family in pursuit of his own advancement. On the contrary, however, David wants to be and endeavors to be a good father. And mostly for the sake of the children, he persistently attempts to reconcile with Noreen, who seldom gives him much reason for hope. The picture is so disarming that for nearly half its running time we're uncertain whom we're supposed to be rooting for. David is a doofus, but no one else is very likable. His father is distant, his wife is cold and the kids are hopeless. But gradually we come to understand the picture's central point: stuff happens. The America that Madison Avenue sells us equates success with happiness. In counter point, the art world of literature and film often wonders if the two are mutually exclusive, if professional success can only be purchased by betraying loved ones. The Weather Man submits that the two just aren't related. David may make more money than makes any sense, but so do professional athletes and lots of other people in the public eye. Critically, he's good at what he does. But no level of professional accomplishment is automatically going to translate into domestic contentment. And just as David is astonishingly lucky professionally, he's approximately that unlucky in his private life. His problems as a father, husband and son are more the product of misfortune than malfeasance.

The Weather Man reminded me of Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, in part because both pictures employ a first-person voice-over narration by their central characters. But in larger part it's because both films dare to ask us to spend time with an array of imperfect and often annoying characters, about whom both artfully demand that we care. Jack Nicholson landed an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Warren Schmidt, but I worry that Cage's work will not be similarly recognized. Make no mistake: he's terrific, and he's all the more successful because he eschews some of the studied eccentricities he's brought forth in earlier performances in Peggy Sue Got Married, Wild at Heart and Matchsticks. It would have been easy to depict David as an oddball. Cage far more wisely plays him as an everyman, a mostly decent, slightly in-over-his-head seeker who has both found more fortune and more heartache than he deserves.

Director Verbinski has made his reputation with the runaway success of Pirates of the Caribbean, one already a box-office smash and two more on the way. The Weather Man couldn't be much different. But different as they are, the artistic success of both suggests that Verbinski has a keen eye for a well-developed script, a sensitive ear for the unusual joke and a special talent for cinematic comedy. There's a running joke in The Weather Man that people see David on the street pelt him with food items: a soda, a slushy, a shake, a taco or a burger. In the hands of a less-skilled filmmaker, these moments would be played purely for the gross-out laugh that's the woeful default in pedestrian movies. Verbinksi makes this idiocy a central example of his theme that stuff happens, and he builds it toward a crescendo of flying food at the end that left me, the unlikeliest audience for food-on-clothing humor, absolutely howling.

In sum, The Weather Man delivers the goods. It never settles for the obvious. It surprises you repeatedly. And in the end it blindsides you with a left hook of sentiment that's all the more effective because it rings so true.

David Spritz (Nicolas Cage) can't seem to catch a break in - director Gore Verbinski's latest film, The Weather - Man.
  • David Spritz (Nicolas Cage) can't seem to catch a break in director Gore Verbinski's latest film, The Weather Man.

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