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Midlife crisis turns The Weather Man partly cloudy

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Until I saw The Weather Man, I never knew that local TV meteorologists face the occupational hazard of being periodically pelted with junk food. A running joke finds Chicago forecaster David Spritz (Nicolas Cage) on the receiving end of drive-by Slurpees, McNuggets and burritos. For the sake of Flip Spiceland and his brethren, I hope it's not true, but the food-throwing provides a reliable gag that The Weather Man doesn't overuse.

For a film that finds laughs whenever Spritz catches a Big Gulp in the face, The Weather Man's overall tone stays more overcast than sunny. Frequently running to the crowd-pleasing Hollywood formula, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriter Steve Conrad have ambitions to make Spritz's midlife crisis into a pointed statement about the hollowness of American values. The Weather Man seldom proves as profound as it thinks it is, but you appreciate its attempt to be serious.

As public figures, TV weathermen seem to be universally recognized and disrespected; they're the clowns of the eyewitness news teams. In voice-over, Spritz explains that people resent their funny names, their six-figure salaries and their wacky traditions -- Spritz calls the coldest day in the forecast the "Spritz Nipper." As shown in Groundhog Day and L.A. Story, the profession has all the problems of celebrity with few of the perks.

Cage makes Spritz hale and cheerful in his brief on-camera scenes, but otherwise his face sinks into joyless apathy, its sharp angles resembling a woodcut of depression. Despite his handsome material success, his personal life is a shambles, and he craves the approval of his aging father, Robert (Michael Caine), a lionized man of letters who seems contemptuous of his son's career and parenting skills.

Spritz believes that his redemption -- and even a reconciliation with his ex-wife, Noreen (Hope Davis) -- lies in more success, and he auditions for a national job on "Hello, America." (Bryant Gumbel cameos as himself.) Meanwhile, his overweight daughter, Shelly (the fine Gemmenne de la Peña), secretly smokes and bears the brunt of obscene nicknames, while his 15-year-old son, Mike (About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult), deals with marijuana problems and, in an icky subplot, a drug counselor who may be a sexual predator.

At times, The Weather Man takes comedic tangents, such as Spritz and Noreen's disastrous couple's therapy session, or a sequence that follows the trivial, sex-obsessed non sequiturs in Spritz's stream of consciousness. But the film avoids pandering to the typical young demographics that most movies target.

With its chilly scenes of winter, The Weather Man plays in a quiet, melancholy key more likely to strike a chord with older audiences. Despite the narcissistic quality of Spritz's gloom, he's aware of his family's unhappiness and despairs at his inability to improve their situation. With his father's health swiftly deteriorating and his children growing up too fast, the pressure's on. If only they'd just stop changing, Spritz could make everything better, or so he seems to think. Verbinski and Conrad may believe that they're exposing the soul -- or lack thereof -- of the upwardly mobile American male. But the film never quite escapes the pull of Spritz's own self-absorption.

Although Spritz accepts the value of spending quality time with his family, The Weather Man avoids easy outs and feel-good endings. But as a whole, The Weather Man never works as well as some of its strong individual moments, like a snowbound Chicago traffic jam as a vision of hell, or a montage of Spritz being hit by fast food items. What a memorable symbol for American consumerism: It's raining shakes and fries out there.

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