Director Gore Verbinski is nothing if not versatile. With mostly auspicious results, the one-time TV commercial whiz has dabbled in everything from children's fare (“Mousetrap”) to supernatural horror (“The Ring”) to theme-park-inspired escapism (“Pirates of the Caribbean”). One might call him a student of dialects, a cinematic polyglot.
Verbinski's “The Weather Man” is something different still: A hilariously downbeat tale of numb, upper-middle-class desperation that suggests a less severe companion piece to “American Beauty” (1999). Like Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham, Chicago TV weatherman Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage) is in the throes of a Class Five identity crisis, so baffled by life that he stands in front of a bathroom mirror and contemplates his own name.
“Spritz ... refreshing ... I am refreshing,” he intones silently, getting into character.
Off-camera, Dave feels anything but refreshing. His marriage to Noreen (Hope Davis from “Proof”) is in shambles. His teenage son (Nicholas Hoult from “About a Boy”) is indifferent and withdrawn and has started poking around for father figures. Dave also has a fat, unhappy preteen daughter (Gemmenne de la Peña) and is constantly reminded of his parental inadequacies by his ailing father, Robert (Michael Caine), a one-time literary titan whose esteemed career makes Dave feel even worse about his own low-pressure-system life.
As a man struggling against the gnawing pain of non-purpose, Cage (“Leaving Las Vegas”) creates a compelling portrait of mortal American exhaustion, punctuated wryly by the fact that Dave is the repeated victim of drive-by beverage-peltings by scornful motorists who recognize him from TV. Ultimately, Dave's redemption proves tricky: Screenwriter Steve Conrad (“Wrestling Ernest Hemingway”) resorts to one-sided, emptily gratifying tactics, like having Dave beat up a pedophile (Gil Bellows).
Aside from that and a faint, misjudged pall of cynicism, “The Weatherman” is a rather good effort — rapaciously funny, deeply felt, focused on the things that matter. Is it grounds to proclaim Verbinski an elite director? Maybe not, but it shows us that there's more on his mind than ghosts and pirates.
‘The Weather Man’
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Hope Davis, Nicholas Hoult
Rating: R (profanity and sexual content) Running time: 102 minutes
Playing: Opens Friday in Valley theaters