Cold Front

The Weather Man (2005)

Nicolas Cage as Dave Spritz stands in an illuminated elevator, luggage in hand. The Chicago skyline is visible in the background.
illustration by Tom Ralston

We hear it before we see it. A whispering wind, beckoning from somewhere just beyond the studio logos. Then: sharp cut to a frozen lake, panes of shattered crystal undulating with the current. We hear these too, scraping up against each other like tectonic plates, the shrill stab of ice on ice. They’re painted deep blue, shaped like oversized seashells, reaching out to the edge of the frame. The camera pans up: Chicago’s coastline in its earliest hours—Lake Shore Drive, The Drake, The John Hancock. A car horn bleats in the distance.

Now we’re in a muted bathroom, perhaps a hotel—the sound of rushing water, brushing teeth. A head emerges from the bottom of the screen, staring straight at us: Nicolas Cage, dressed in a light blue button-down, bangs swept to one side. We know this face, have seen it a hundred times before. “That was refreshing,” he deadpans in voiceover. “I am refreshed.” He breaks into a grin, a bit of a chuckle. But already something seems off. “I am refreshing.” He holds this smile for a moment too long, then lets it fade to another look—pained, quizzical. The audience laughs at the first line, maybe the second. But they’re not laughing now. It’s unclear if what they’re watching—Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man (2005), featuring Cage in the title role—is supposed to be funny. Our main character, Dave Spritz, is no help, his expression betraying his words. It seems as though he’s trying to convince us just as much as he’s trying to convince himself.

*

When I was eight or nine, I took a filmmaking course at a palatial mansion-turned-arts-center on the banks of Lake Michigan. Our goal was to write, shoot, and edit a movie over the span of a typically grueling Chicago winter. Presumably inspired by the sub-zero landscape, I conceived of a mockumentary-style short about three boys who spend several days stranded on a floating glacier. 

If our instructor shared my parents’ concern over filming on a frozen lake, he didn’t let it get in the way of artistic instinct. He took us onto the ice with a camcorder, let me train its lens on the snowed-over expanse that stretched across the shore. These shots were interspersed with faux-interviews of the three boys, where it becomes evident that the story they’ve shared was far from accurate: one of the boys bullied the others and, in his attempt to set them adrift, accidentally marooned himself as well.

I imagine the completed project exists solely on a VHS tape in my mother’s basement, or else in some Goodwill bargain bin—the epitome of found footage waiting to be found. When I think back on the film now, however, what strikes me most isn’t the sly machinations of the plot—owing more to Christopher Guest than Errol Morris—but rather that a celebrated director, at around the same time, stumbled on a similar fixation. One of the oddest Hollywood career moves in recent years was Verbinski’s pivot from Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)—the fourth-highest-grossing film of its year, spawning numerous sequels—to a small black comedy set in the desolate Midwest. And although The Weather Man tanked at the box office, it strikes me that Verbinski was following a trajectory also marked by artistic impulse. He knew as well as I did: the only thing scarier than undead pirates are Chicago’s indifferent winds.

*

A few years after my filmic debut, real camera crews arrived in our neighborhood. They set up trailers and cranes, peppered the lawns with fake snow, and blocked off the surrounding area. Gossip buzzed about town: Nicolas Cage was arriving to shoot his latest picture. Forget the Art Institute. This year’s main attraction was just on the other side of Central Street.

It wasn’t the first time Hollywood had descended on Chicagoland. Many of John Hughes’s movies were shot in the nearby suburbs—the Home Alone (1990) house was just over in Winnetka. Rumor had it that Bennifer (in their first iteration) had frequented the now-shuttered diner Jack’s Restaurant on Touhy while Affleck was in town for Surviving Christmas (2004). But it was the first time a Hollywood project felt personal in a way I couldn’t quite explain. Part of it was proximity, of course, but it seemed even more specific than that. Hughes’s films always rang false to me, like the lives we could be living but never actually were (to say nothing of Surviving Christmas’s lack of realism). The Weather Man, on the other hand, was instantly relatable. Details were scarce, but the story was familiar enough: a family man commuting to the city for work, like my own dad. Our local meteorologist, Tom Skilling of WGN-TV, even served as a consultant, showing Cage the ropes, adding authenticity to his performance as Chicago’s premiere weatherman. The cast and crew loved him, apparently; they ran a featurette about it on the news. Finally, our neck of the woods was getting some recognition.

By the time The Weather Man premiered in 2005, I was thirteen. It received an R rating, which would’ve typically precluded my attendance. But in this case my dad convinced my mom to make an exception. My father was always good about this—aware that certain  pieces of popular media, despite their mature themes, were crucial to my development as a creative adolescent. The year before he bought me OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and took me to see both Matrix sequels multiple times, all objects I received with the sort of rapture that folks my parents’ age ascribe to their first experiences with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The Weather Man hadn’t been vetted in advance (though I can’t imagine my dad listening to 135 minutes of OutKast), but it seemed a foregone conclusion that we’d attend opening night: my obsession with the film—especially in the wake of its trailer, featuring Cage strutting through the city to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” crossbow slung over his shoulder—had reached a fervor not encountered since the Star Wars prequels. Perhaps it says something about my childhood self that while most boys preferred Cage in National Treasure (2004), I thought he looked coolest as a middle-aged man trying to do right by his family.

As it happened, The Weather Man did have a profound effect on me, though perhaps not in the intended sense. I had not yet learned the purpose of trailers: to make a story look as accessible as possible, rid of its incendiary bite, ready for mass consumption, fun and flirty in a way the movie doesn’t always wind up being. In the teaser, when Cage throws a snowball at his wife Noreen (Hope Davis), it plays as a comical moment of misjudgment. In the film, it’s just depressing. That’s the way I’d describe The Weather Man above all else: utterly depressing. It stirred in me, in that first teenage year, feelings of deep unease, discomfort, foreboding. It wasn’t at all what I’d been promised. It made my world—the streets I’d grown up on, the community in which I’d been raised—look like absolute hell.

*

The Weather Man does in fact tell the tale of a weatherman living in the Chicago suburbs. But the details that color his life are decidedly bleak. He’s estranged from his wife, stranded in a sterile apartment filled with family photos of happier times. Noreen has already moved on, and a new man, Russ (Michael Rispoli), always hangs in the doorframe whenever he shows up to see his kids. The kids aren’t fairing much better: fifteen-year-old Mike (Nicholas Hoult) has recently returned from rehab, and twelve-year-old Shelly (Gemmenne de la Peña) is despondent, stuck in ill-fitting clothes, and forever scowling. His father (Michael Caine), a Pulitzer Prize-winning author diagnosed with lymphoma, looks upon him with humiliation and disdain, waiting in the wings while he fails to meet expectations. He’s chasing a job at Hello America (a fictional version of Good Morning America, featuring the very real Bryant Gumbel) that would move him to New York—which, despite its sizable raise, he views with ambivalence beyond the respect it might afford him. For reasons that go unexplained, people keep throwing things at him: shakes, sodas, nuggets, falafel. He speculates on why this might be—his annoying name, Dave Spritz; the fact that he gets paid a lot to basically do nothing—but we never get a clear answer. It just keeps happening, and Spritz keeps taking it.

It’s a chronicle we’ve heard before—that of the disillusioned man, embodied by the late-twentieth-century works of John Updike and Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe and Richard Ford. But what saves this story from Franzenesque fretting is that it makes no effort to glorify its protagonist—it doesn’t paint him as a vessel for our own malaise with the American Dream. Spritz is a loser, a buffoon, a schmuck; his wife knows it, his kids know it, his dad knows it, his coworkers know it, even he knows it. In a sense, the movie is a series of variations on this theme, meant to solidify what’s established from that opening shot of Cage. When he takes Shelly to his company party, she falls during an ice-skating race and he pressures her to finish—“I don’t want you to quit,” he cajoles; “It’s gonna mean a lot to Dad. Okay?”—only to later learn that she’s broken her leg. During a group therapy session with Noreen, when asked to share a shameful moment, Dave immediately raises his hand: “I had this thing with porno…I got a little preoccupied.” In one particularly dismal scene, Mike comes home to find Spritz sitting in his car across the street. “What are you doing out here?” Mike asks, to which his father replies: “Just sitting here. Sometimes I just sit here and look at the house…I just like to see you guys.” 

It’s a heart-wrenching exchange, and you feel bad for Dave—but on the other hand, you know it’s his fault, his comeuppance after years of shortcuts and poor decisions. He’s not a real meteorologist, has merely learned to master the green screen; when asked during the Hello America interview about his credentials, he flippantly admits to majoring in “communications”—an early-aughts signpost for the underachiever. His last name isn’t really Spritz; it’s ‘Spritzel,’ truncated by his station manager to sound punchier, a metaphorical castration of his own complicity. Even in moments where the movie seems to suggest that Dave isn’t getting his fair shake—in some cases a literal shake thrown at him—it also seems to suggest, via Cage’s hangdog face: Well, wouldn’t you want to throw something at this guy too?

*

If one were to hazard a guess as to why The Weather Man flopped at the box office (apart from being a plot-light film up against Saw II and The Mask of Zorro in its opening weekend), it would undoubtedly be because its hero is morally compromised and chronically self-interested, let alone just plain unlikeable. But Verbinski is also unrelenting in his direction: he hangs on stagnant shots of Spritz in drab buildings—the DMV and Arby’s appear in the first ten minutes—and sunless vistas of a city besieged by snow. Hans Zimmer’s score is similarly labored, eons away from his seat-shaking soundtracks with Christopher Nolan: alternately sparse and electronic, then frantic and percussive, reminiscent of a clock ticking toward destruction. Other movies from that era—Zadie Smith mentions American Beauty (1999) and About Schmidt (2002) in her tepid review—are practically jaunty by comparison, rich with color and melodrama. Verbinski, on the other hand, chooses to lean in on his surroundings. Moviegoers chose to lean out.

At the time I assumed it was the story’s content that made me uncomfortable, let alone that I was viewing it with my dad. And there’s some truth to this, because The Weather Man is rife with the aforementioned mature themes, most of them sexual. Spritz’s life is governed by his unvarnished desires, and thus many of his inner monologues are refracted through this lens (“I wish I had two dicks,” he reflects at one point, unsolicited). There are several discussions about Shelly’s school nickname, Camel Toe, and then a voiceover in which Cage actually describes what a camel toe is (replete with photos). At one point Noreen details to Dave her disgust with fellatio—Davis’s line is too horrific to document here—while Shelly listens through the screen door. There’s a subplot involving Mike’s creepy friendship with his rehab counselor (the perfectly-named Don Bowden), and I can still recall my nausea at a scene in which the counselor suggests Mike remove his shirt to take some pictures—and Mike promptly does, Hoult’s pubescent biceps raised for the camera. The interaction is meant to suck the air out of the theater, to replicate the experience of teenage discomfort: that sinking feeling of something new, something you know is wrong but don’t have the agency to turn from. It’s doubly impactful if you can’t view it with the hindsight of maturity.

But The Weather Man also taps into something far more frightening, an undercurrent that likely drew Verbinski to the material—an ethos that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) put my finger on as a child. It wasn’t that the subject matter scared me so much as what the film promised of the future. This was what adulthood would really be like: trapped in a prison of your own creation, with no idea as to how you got there or where it all went wrong, left with the overarching proof that everyone views you exactly how you view yourself. So much of adolescence is the wishful projection of what’s to come: the house, the car, the spouse, the kids, perfectly manifest after years spent in flux. Contentment, fulfillment, credits roll. But what if that projection was a lie? “I remember once imagining what my life would be like,” Cage tells us toward the conclusion of the film. “I pictured having all these qualities. Strong, positive qualities that people could pick up on from across a room. But as time passed, few ever became any qualities I actually had.” We watch as he wanders down broad, darkened streets through crowds of faceless passengers, their ranks thinning out. “And all the possibilities I faced, and the sorts of people I could be … all of them got reduced every year to fewer and fewer, until finally they got reduced to one. To who I am.” He stands alone on the corner, at a crossroads, snowflakes fluttering by, camera trained on him from its perch. “The weather man.” To see this parable play out against the backdrop of your life—a few blocks from your house, at the mall you frequented, in the city you knew for its frigid days—felt nothing less than prophetic. Now, of course, Dave’s descent strikes me as a cautionary tale: the perils of a life lived without cultivation or self-reflection. Back then, however, it felt all but inevitable.

I don’t think this phenomenon is specific to Chicago. But I do think it’s especially suited to it. To grow up there is to live in the shadow of its legacy—Capone’s heyday and the Curse of the Billy Goat; Cheeseburger Cheeseburger and Da Bears; Polish sausage and deep dish—and yet to rarely see this reflected in your everyday life. There’s the city you grow up hearing about and then the city that actually is. It’s a city where it takes two hours and three trains to get anywhere, where Lake Shore Drive is always backed up and the Edens is always under construction. It’s a city where one day they drop a mirrored bean on Michigan Ave and label it a landmark; where Sears becomes Willis, Comiskey becomes Guaranteed Rate, Marshall Field’s becomes Macy’s, Soldier Field becomes a toilet bowl. It’s a city where the river runs putrid green (annually neon), smells like a septic tank, and purportedly contains eight-hundred pounds of Dave Matthews’ excrement. It’s a city where Sufjan Stevens made a lot of mistakes. But most of all, it’s a city that’s freezing: where the streets become wide wind tunnels of breath, where the chill in your bones makes you question, daily, whether it’s worth getting out of bed. This is the Chicago that The Weather Man knows: a city trapped between coasts, haunted by its reputation, growing all the more faceless as it edges its way through the new millennium. Watching Spritz navigate existential dread beneath its monochrome sky feels so accurate, so lived-in, that it’s no wonder I came away scarred. “‘Easy’ doesn’t enter into grown-up life,” his father says at one point. It also doesn’t much enter into life in Chicago.

In college, I turned all this into something of a joke, the way you turn every uncertain feeling in college into a joke. I held screenings of Verbinski’s film, repeated favorite lines with friends (“Ah, I got hit with a pop”), never once mentioning that above all else the film disturbed me, numbing myself to its starkness by ridiculing it instead. This, to me, is ostensibly what has also become of Cage’s career: instead of viewing him as an actor meeting the film where it stands, we see a wild card whose patented lunacy exists solely as spectacle. The man hasn’t done himself any favors—naming his son after Superman, buying dinosaur skulls—but it strikes me that we’ve treated him as I treated The Weather Man: laughing at our discomfort instead of actually interrogating it. But this is forgivable, because interrogation requires time and space—a lesson The Weather Man also knows well. As a teenager, I never understood the end of the film: Dave takes the job, absconds to New York, abandons his family to start anew—joining the long list of characters whose lives are improved because they moved out of Chicago. It didn’t make sense: rather than face his fears, he just ran away. But then I left too, and my life also improved, not because there’s anything wrong with Chicago but because there was something wrong with me—because I needed a change and I just didn’t know it yet. The movie had this moral buried in it too. Sometimes you have to leave things behind to see them for what they truly are.

When I watch The Weather Man now, I mostly think about my dad. Not that he shouldn’t have taken me on opening night—though there’s certainly a case to be made—but rather what he thought while watching it there beside me. I spent so much time scrutinizing my own attraction and repulsion that I never stopped to consider what he himself might’ve seen. He and my mother had recently separated; he’d moved into an apartment of his own, would soon find a new, more satisfying job. My father was nothing like Spritz; he was hardworking, kind, with an intact moral compass. Still, the parallels were there. We’ll never fully know what someone glimpses on the screen, and in this way I’ll never fully know what he saw reflected back. I wonder if he, too, found himself struggling to knuckle down, keep things on track, find his footing through another harsh winter. I wonder if he was looking for ways to connect with his son and daughter—days spent wandering the mall, visiting grandparents, watching movies I’d begged him to see. I wonder if he ever sat outside our house and considered what had happened: where it’d taken a turn, when it’d gone wrong. Maybe where I saw the future, he saw the present. The older I get the more I feel that life is a kind of weathering, and that often this weathering doesn’t arrive as imagined. I learned that from time, but I also learned it from him. You tread onto the ice and hope the glass beneath you doesn’t crack.