I come to praise Nicolas Cage, not to bury him or to throw milk shakes at him.
with regards to William Shakespeare
On Father’s Day, maybe we can reflect on the career of Oscar winner Nicolas Cage. His reputation anymore is that he’s something of a hack, a money-grubber who latches on to big paycheck jobs in over-the-top action flicks. I can’t–or don’t–relate.
Once upon a time, he dazzled audiences with genius performances in quirky films–or is that quirky performances in genius films? You know, Raising Arizona (once again, GENIUS!!!), Moonstruck (that incredibly impassioned speech to Cher late at night during the snowfall–a triumph of acting OVER writing), Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart, and Honeymoon in Vegas. I also liked Guarding Tess (somewhat subdued opposite formidable Shirley MacLaine) and even Snake Eyes (lesser De Palma but not without its intriguing elements). I even think his often criticized performance in Peggy Sue Got Married makes all kinds of sense in context–but that’s for another day. I also confess to somehow missing 2000’s Family Man, a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life–but, then, I’m one of the few people I know that has always had difficulty embracing the original 1946 Christmas classic. Oh, and I once knew a woman who couldn’t praise Matchstick Men enough.
During 1995/96 awards season, Cage achieved what many of most ardent admirers had long hoped to see. He won an Oscar for playing a suicidal, alcoholic, burn-out writer in Leaving Las Vegas. By the time he walked onstage to accept his golden statuette that March evening, he had collected virtually every major award to be had, including but not limited to: Golden Globe, SAG, and National Board of Review, along with NY, LA, and DFW critics. The Oscar was his to lose–but, of course, he didn’t. Was I glad he won? Yeah, maybe. Of course, he’s a good actor, but I wasn’t a fan of the film, and frankly, I thought he tried too hard. For this viewer, Leaving Las Vegas–including Cage–was uneven, all over the place. I thought Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking) gave a much more compelling performance–in spite of that damned pompadour. I was also very much moved by Richard Dreyfuss’s popular Mr. Holland’s Opus, a comeback of sorts for the previous Oscar winner (1977’s The Goodbye Girl), but Dreyfuss and Penn were there mainly for the ride. It was Cage’s time. (Oh, and please don’t ask me to comment on either Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon or the late Massimo Troissi and El Postino.)
So, Cage wins the Oscar, and then something happens. We start seeing him in a whole different light, what with The Rock, Con-Air, and Face/Off in rapid succession. This was high octane Cage, and the public did nothing but buy tickets. As time passed, we saw fewer City of Angels (an American update of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, co-starring Meg Ryan) and more Gone in Sixty Seconds. Oh sure, he paused long enough for a relatively restrained World Trade Center (directed by no less than Oliver Stone) and even earned a second Best Actor nomination for 2002’s Adaptation though that one, a take off on Susan Orlean’s non-fiction The Orchid Thief with Cage playing twins (both obnoxious), is definitely an acquired taste. Most of his latest offerings tend to invite scorn and snickers.
All that brings us to 2004 and National Treasure, a huge hit that was actually a lot of fun with Cage cast as a modern Indiana Jones type historian and cryptologist on a thrilling quest involving, among others, the Declaration of Independence. Released in November, just ahead of the Thanksgiving crunch, the movie scored generally enthusiastic reviews and spent three weeks at the top of the box office charts. The flick was such a success that Paramount quaked. Originally, the studio had intended to release its Cage offering, The Weather Man, during the same time, no doubt for Oscar consideration, but apparently the consensus was that the market could not bear competing Cage vehicles, and that the less thrilling, more character-driven Cage film would be the loser. With that in mind, Paramount pulled all advertising and looked to spring of 2005.
^ That little ditty featured in The Weather Man‘s trailer is “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop. Miraculously, it is also heard in the film.
Based on its appealing trailer, one that appeared to show Cage back in fine form, I was super-stoked to see The Weather Man even if I had to wait a few more weeks, or months, to see it. Nothing happened though. Later rather than sooner, Paramount announced that The Weather Man was back on its release schedule–for fall of 2005, again, no doubt as a potential Oscar contender. (Btw, I can find little or no documentation of any of this on the Internet, but I had friends working at the then Paramount branch office at the time, keeping me posted. That office subsequently closed after Paramount and DreamWorks struck some kind of production deal, the details of which escape me.)
Anyway, I saw The Weather Man the very day it opened, probably at the old Keystone theatre (formerly Loews, formerly AMC, formerly Regal), now a Studio Movie Grill. I loved it, finding it quite moving, unexpectedly so. The trailer promotes it as, yes, a quirky comedy, and it definitely has its comedic moments, but it’s also dramatic and goes to some dark and dare I say tender places, hitting a raw nerve or two along the way.
Cage’s David Spritz is a Chicago based TV weatherman with aspirations of moving to one of the major networks. He’s fine enough at his job though it’s a dice-y occupation given how personally many viewers receive the message, blaming their resulting frustration on the messenger, thus the occasional milkshake or other fast food item in the face. Yeah. As successful as David is at his job, he’s a mess as a father. His marriage has fallen apart–his ex-wife (the always game Hope Davis) is already seriously involved with someone else–and Dave simply does not know how to be a good father any more than he knew how to be a good husband. His two school-age kids aren’t doing well. His daughter smokes and can no longer fit into her clothes to the point that she’s being taunted by her classmates in an especially cruel, vulgar way; meanwhile, his teenage son is being groomed by a potential pedophile. Dave tries, maybe too hard, even, but he keeps tripping over his own good intentions–or what he believes are good intentions.
Part of Dave’s issue is that he doesn’t know how to be a good father likely because his own father failed him. In this case, dad is portrayed by no less than Michael Caine (a curious casting choice) as a Pulitzer winning author–and buddy of no less than President Jimmy Carter. Caine’s elder Spritzel is a regal, powerful man–a dry academic who believes he’s always right, and he can barely hide the disappointment in his son. Mostly, he doesn’t understand his son’s occupation or interests and never really took the time to learn or to empathize. How can David ever hope to be a positive force in his own children’s lives if he has only ever disappointed his own father?
What goes on between these two men is a particularly tortured dynamic, and watching it play out is not easy, but that’s what I like about this movie: its complexity. Aside from the aforementioned pedophile (and believe me, that’s not a spoiler–you’ll recognize the what-what the minute he utters his first line), characters are not necessarily painted as either good or bad, and the reward is watching these works in progress (all of them have their differences). David Spritz isn’t always likable, or smart, but in Cage’s capable hands, I root for him anyway. I can’t even say it’s because I see his innate goodness…let’s say not entirely innate, but I like that he keeps trying. That’s what comes across, a sincere effort to be better–that, and the way he wanders through the movie with a continually baffled look on his face, astonished that he can be so wrong, so misunderstood, at almost every turn.
I think if The Weather Man had been a bigger hit, if the studio had understood what it had, and marketed it more effectively, Cage might have swung some year-end awards cred. Do I mean an Oscar or even an Oscar nod? Maybe not; after all, 2005 also saw Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), David Strathairn (as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck), Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), and, my personal fave, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line–the whole lineup hailed at the time by many Oscar analysts as one of the strongest ever for Best Actor, not a weak link in the bunch. Simply, competition was too tough that year for a movie that was not even a marginal success to gain a foothold.
What if Paramount had released The Weather Man in 2004 as originally planned? Well, that was pretty much an open shut and case the minute critics and audiences gasped at Jamie Foxx’s magnificent portrayal of Ray Charles in, what else, Ray. Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) had their champions as did Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) and Johnny Depp (Neverland), but no deal.
Still, I do think Cage’s performance was at least worth consideration among other groups, even if that meant “only” a Golden Globe nomination. Something. A film festival trinket? Cage didnt’t even rate a shout-out from the Chicago Film Critics Association even though it apparently earned “Thumbs Up” from respected Chicago based critic Roger Ebert and his onscreen partner Richard Roeper. Next to the comedic gold on display in Raising Arizona, which defies awards consideration because it really is just TOO good, too special, for such categorization, this is my favorite Cage performance (with Moonstruck a close third), and quite possibly his most underrated. This is a fully rounded characterization, rich with nuance. What it’s not rich in, mercifully, is bluster. In other roles, when Cage’s characters feel the heat, the actor often cuts loose, crazed, maniacal, but the effect is almost always cartoony, hardly resembling real-life. Not so as The Weatherman. Instead, David Spritz is waging war with himself, trying to keep that rage in check, a struggle he mostly wins with one understandable exception. I also like the way he underplays a potentially awkward conversation with his daughter. Exhale.
Meanwhile, one of my contacts at Paramount was certain that Michael Caine was a sure thing for Best Supporting Actor, so let that be a heads up, Caine fans. As noted, Caine would not have been my first choice for the role though he brings considerable presence to the screen, but somehow, I just don’t quite buy him as Cage’s dad. Something is off. On the other hand, maybe that’s the point. That noted, I think these many years later, either Donald Sutherland or Clint Eastwood might have made a better match. Yes, Clint Eastwood. I can easily see him playing this eloquent, detached individual who doesn’t suffer fools.
This isn’t a one man show, mind you, or even a two-man show. This is also a spectacular manifestation of director Gore Verbinski’s vision–riding on the smash success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie at the time–in conjunction with a team of first-rate team of designers and technicians: Phedon Papamichael (cinematographer), Tom Duffield (production designer), Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. (art-director), Rosemary Brandenburg (set decoration), and John David Wolfe (location scout). This team has worked ever so skillfully to recreate Chicago as a richly textured, wet and wintry wonderland full of blues and grays, not a lot of warmth, but every surface is so exquisitely lit as to appear eminently touchable. Of course, Chicago, already architecturally interesting, presents a spectacular canvas. Dig that animal statuary and the way it’s utilized as a kind of unlikely emotional touchstone. Everything is seemingly bursting with life, yet it’s not, and the rain functions as free-flowing tears. What a moment.
As pointed out on the DVD, Chicago makes a great location for a movie about a weather man because the elements are so extreme. For example, the weather in Los Angeles is unchanging. New York, on the other hand, has varying weather, sure, but it’s also familiar to moviegoers. The point being made in this movie is that even a TV weather man cannot control the weather any more than he, or any of us, can control one another; therefore, the weather has to be working against the characters, keeping them unsettled. The movie’s opening shot, Lake Michigan at its iciest, establishes the dynamic beautifully, followed within seconds by the spectacular view from Spritz’s high rise apartment overlooking the Chicago river. It’s all about perspective.
Again, this is a technically stunning movie, and Cage wasn’t the only party to be overlooked for awards consideration. My second biggest complaint would be saved for cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. What an artist, but, again, nothing. No Oscar nod, and not even a scrap from the American Society of Cinematographers. Really? I mean, not to overwork a metaphor, but this movie is just dripping with gorgeous imagery.
Also, credit goes to Verbinski and his team of producers as well as, of course, screenwriter Steven Conrad. He, Verbinski, and Cage benefitted from the expertise of meteorological advisor Tom Skilling, who appears briefly as one of Cage’s weather station colleagues. Shout out, as well, to Bryant Gumble as himself. Additionally, composer Hans Zimmer contributes another fitting score, and dig Cage’s camera ready coif, styled by Larry Waggoner. Spot on. Every day is a good hair day for this dude.
Maybe, just maybe, this doesn’t sound like such an appealing movie for Father’s Day viewing, all things considered. Understood. That noted, I’m glad I finally wrote about it because this is actually one of a handful of movies that inspired me to launch this blog–it along with Infamous, Drugstore Cowboy, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Citizen Ruth, and a few others. I really do think that while it’s not entirely a neglected masterpiece, it is definitely and undeservedly neglected. So skip it for now if you think it will cast a dark cloud on you and your dad’s bonding time. Instead, think about it like this: here we are in mid-to-late June in Dallas, TX, and it’s been raining off and on, mostly on, for days and weeks, but it appears to have stopped for the time being, so that can only mean one thing. Summer is coming to Texas, and that entails a heck of a lot of heat and very little precipitation. Soon, we’ll all be parched and miserable, clamoring for relief, and that might very well take the form of a movie holiday, something cool, windy, and, yes, wet. That will be your cue to stay indoors, chill, and give The Weather Man his shot.
Thanks for your consideration…
As indicated my the image of the DVD box in the sidebar, Ebert and Roeper gave The Weather Man “Two Thumbs Up.” You can read Ebert’s review by clicking here: