Continuing a limited series of articles exploring the stylistic development of director Gore Verbinski, beginning with Mouse Hunt (1997) and ending with A Cure for Wellness (2016).
On the heels of the massive success and equally-massive burden of the production of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (2003), it comes as no surprise that Gore Verbinski’s next project, 2005’s The Weather Man, proved to be the smallest in scale of his career. Between a budget considerably lower than even his feature debut, Mouse Hunt (1997), the return of that first film’s cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and a fresh start with the then-relatively-new Escape Artists Productions, The Weather Man saw Verbinski going back to basics and producing the best work of his career.
The story unfolds in first-person, narrated by successful Chicago weather man Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage, in his best tragi-comic role outside of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. ). Before we meet our hero, however, Verbinski offers a moment of silence. Inviting us to contemplate an almost abstract shot of gently undulating ice on Lake Michigan before panning up to the Chicago skyline, Verbinski and Papamichael set the tone of the film from the first frame. This opening shot brings us out of the fantastical world of Pirates (the water) and back to our present reality (the city). The first cut continues to emphasize the contemplative mood as we move into Dave’s apartment and see it from the point of view of his bathroom mirror, though we still don’t see him. An “empty” shot (one without human figures) like this recalls the opening of The Mexican (2001), and uses the technique to similar ends in a completely different context: in that earlier film, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s camera takes in a beautiful Los Angeles sky while the event that kicks off the whole drama of the film occurs just below the frame. In both films, Verbinski uses empty shots to bring us into their worlds, but where Wolski (who also shot all three Pirates movies that Verbinski directed) obliquely communicates action in an action-heavy picture, Weather Man cinematographer Phedon Papamichael makes it clear that the characters themselves are the focus of the film.
Dave straightens up into the frame, his eyes locked on the camera but apparently seeing nothing; he conjures up his best Newscaster Smile but it fades quickly – barely 90 seconds into the film, the cracks in our hero’s façade are already showing. Openings like this are where Verbinski’s true power as a filmmaker shines through: between Dave’s morning routine of consuming only coffee for breakfast while practicing his on-camera gestures, an awkward run-in with a fan at the DMV, and picking up his 12-year-old daughter from dance class (and unknowingly dropping her off to buy cigarettes), Verbinski allows us time to get to know his main character before anything really happens to him. This precedence of character over story marks many of the greatest films of all time, even as far back as Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), when a single shot of his Little Tramp character standing awkwardly on the fringes of a sprawling dancehall blowout tells us everything we need to know about our hero and his relationship to society.
Dave proceeds from an uncomfortable car ride with his daughter to one with his father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert King Spritzel (played by a wonderfully cantankerous Michael Caine). As he waits in Robert’s living room to pick him up for a trip to the hospital, the mirror device that introduced us to Dave is repeated, with even greater effect than in that first scene. Papamichael’s camera takes up Dave’s viewpoint, slowly perusing several framed photographs of Robert with President Jimmy Carter and other luminaries from bygone years while Dave’s own reflection is barely a shadow on their glossy surfaces; even with his regular appearances on television, Dave is acknowledged by his father about as much as the Pulitzer Prize Robert uses as a paperweight. Dave’s hopes for his famous father’s recognition sink even lower just before the drive begins, as a letter from a national news program called Hello America inviting Dave to apply for a job that he has left out on the seat for Robert to see goes completely unnoticed. After the appointment, Dave’s narration claims that Robert never neglected the family but, given what we’ve just seen of their relationship, it’s difficult to take this assertion at face value; this narrational aside also gives way immediately to Robert’s criticism of Dave’s parenting.
The ensuing introduction of Dave’s son Mike (Nicholas Hoult) is accompanied by Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”, from his 1977 solo album Lust for Life and famously covered by Siouxsie and the Banshees a decade later. As we have previously seen in The Ring with the smattering of stickers in Noah’s workspace, Verbinski’s nods to his past in punk rock bands are the model of subtlety, although the song’s prominent role in the film’s trailer is considerably less so. Such self-inserts, however, are always significant moments in the context of a mainstream cinema where an individual artist’s vision is always assumed to be subordinate to the quest for money.
Punk pedigree aside, the awkwardness continues as we next meet Dave’s ex-wife Noreen. The pair make small talk and even this is enough to replace Dave’s usual Newscaster Smile with a genuine one, though Hope Davis’s performance as Noreen communicates nothing more than mere politeness. After they say their goodbyes, Dave is seized by some sort of playful impulse and chucks a snowball at her, hitting her directly in the face and breaking her glasses. He then receives immediate comeuppance in the following scene when someone in a van hits him with a large Wendy’s Frosty just as he meets up with his father, and we soon learn this is not the first time such a thing has happened to him. Dave’s explanation that “people throw stuff at me sometimes, if they don’t like me or something,” is met with more dismissal from Robert. In a move that, though we’re less than 20 minutes into the film, has already become a noticeable characteristic, the conversation moves on with no transition to the revelation that Robert has been diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis is negative.
After Robert refuses a ride home and even his son’s company on the walk, we return to the first shot of the bathroom in Dave’s apartment as he cleans the Frosty off his jacket. His voiceover explains that people resent him for how easy his job is, how much money he makes, how little effort he has to put in to sleep with women – this last referring to a comical sex scene between Dave in an Abraham Lincoln costume and a woman who looks ready to serve beer at Oktoberfest. When we cut from this back to the bathroom in Dave’s apartment, we see it from a wholly new angle: with our point of view shifted to a high corner where one might place a security camera, we truly see Dave looking at himself in the mirror (rather than us in place of the mirror) for the first time. His voiceover becomes introspective at this point, too. Abandoning direct explanations as if he has forgotten the audience is there, Dave muses internally on what Robert must think of him and his life choices (though we already know the answer), and begs his father not to die before he can “get it together”, which Dave believes will happen if he gets the Hello America job.
Whether it’s Dave’s Hello America job here in The Weather Man, Jerry’s one last job for the gangster Margolese in The Mexican, or Rango’s final standoff with Rattlesnake Jake in Rango, Verbinski is demonstrably drawn to directing projects that feature protagonists perpetually on the verge of great achievement, of the life they’ve always thought they wanted, with just one obstacle in their way. They acknowledge their imperfections and the ways in which they’ve hurt and/or disappointed their loved ones but, rather than begging for forgiveness or even ever really apologizing, they’ve always got one last plan to make everything ok. Jack Sparrow can fulfill his destiny as a famous pirate if he can just get his ship back; Rachel will finally be able to understand her child and be a good mother to him if she can just break the curse of the killer videotape; Dave’s family will love him again and the public will respect him if he can just get this job.
Dave’s efforts to “get it together” comprise the rest of the film and, perhaps predictably, nothing goes as planned: an outing at a company picnic with his daughter ends in knee surgery, couples therapy with his ex-wife only serves to bring out their old resentments, and even his attempts to understand the actual meteorology behind his job lead to frustration with the inexactitude of the science. The only thing that really goes right for Dave is when he goes for archery lessons, finding that the focus required helps him center himself; picking up a new skill also makes his stagnant life feel full of possibility again. As he concludes in his narration, “it’s hard, but that one good shot leaves you thinking you might be catching on”.
Continuing the film’s oscillation between new possible futures and a past/present filled with regret, Dave next reflects on an incident in which he went to get a takeout meal for the family and, despite Noreen reminding him repeatedly, forgot to bring home tartar sauce. While the film never goes out of its way to elicit sympathy for him, we are at least led to understand why Dave forgot the tartar sauce, as the tone of his voiceover changes once again and we hear a literal stream of consciousness as he walks through the frigid Chicago night to retrieve the food from the restaurant. Dave’s voiceover narration in this scene includes each and every one of his thoughts as they jump from his novel to Neil Young and everything in between, except tartar sauce.
Dave scores an interview with Hello America and the family jets off to New York, complete with a shopping montage that allows for a genuine and heartwarming connection between Dave and his daughter. Harsh reality intrudes immediately after as we learn Dave’s 15-year-old son has been arrested for vandalizing the car of a man who made sexual advances toward him, while the man claims Dave’s son tried to steal his wallet. Once again, Dave’s attempts to “get it together” are consistently frustrated by bad breaks, arbitrary misfortune, and the overall unpredictability of life.
While he does, finally, get the Hello America job, the rest of Dave’s perfect life plan is left in shambles when Noreen reveals she has agreed to marry her new boyfriend. In the end, as with all Verbinski protagonists, Dave’s one final goal turns out to be more of a new beginning, setting him on a path of self-discovery free of the so-called perfect life he thought he wanted. Screenwriter Steven Conrad, in an interview included with the film’s DVD release, links the unpredictability of weather to the unpredictability of life; this metaphor, insipid and obvious as it is, also speaks to the conclusions Verbinski’s films draw as their individual protagonists try to “get it together”. Attempts to control life and to make things go a certain way only lead to more chaos but, especially here in The Weather Man, that’s ok in the end because that chaos also helps you figure out who you really are. And if you’re a little bit lucky like Dave Spritz, figuring out who you really are is the first step on the path to coming to terms with yourself and where you stand in the world.