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Bleak forecast for ‘The Weather Man’

Film relies too much on exposition and repetitive running gags

When a television commercial for a new comedy emphasizes a single, not-very-funny gag, you have to question if the picture has any other laughs to sell.

In the case of “The Weather Man,” the answer is: not many. The commercial focuses on an episode in which a busy wife (Hope Davis) is exasperated that her workaholic husband (Nicolas Cage) has forgotten to bring home tartar sauce for dinner. She sends him out for the sauce, he fails again, and she threatens to check up on whether he’s telling the truth about why he didn’t get it.

The joke doesn’t work much better in the context of  “The Weather Man” than it does in the commercial, but it does suggest the picture’s problems. It simply can’t decide whether it’s a comedy about a public figure with a pathetic private life, or a drama about a loser who has somehow landed a job as a television weatherman. Most of the time, it’s neither incisive nor funny.

This is a shame because Cage and Davis both work hard to make the relationship between David and Noreen Spritz seem fresh and credible. The couple’s bitter divorce is at the center of the story, which also deals with David’s temptation to leave his job as a Chicago weatherman and take an offer from Bryant Gumbel’s syndicated national show, “Hello America,” which is based in New York. His midlife crisis is both personal and professional.

Dave is equally estranged from his father (deftly played by Michael Caine), a stern, unforgiving, world-famous writer whose health is declining. And he’s having trouble relating to his overweight daughter (Gemmenne de la Pena) and his teenage son (Nicholas Hoult), whose relationship with a counselor (Gil Bellows) has become creepily dependent. In addition, he’s humiliated daily by his Chicago audience, which greets him on the street by throwing junk food at him. Could a national audience be any worse?

The director, Gore Verbinski (who made “Pirates of the Caribbean” as well as its upcoming sequels), also works hard, mostly at suggesting what it’s like to be a minor television celebrity who isn’t universally respected. But he relies too much on clumsy exposition and running gags that don’t bear much repetition.

The gags tend to emphasize the clownishness of Cage’s character, who must eventually generate some degree of respect if he’s going to be the subject of a 100-minute movie. Unfortunately, we see Dave too often through the disapproving eyes of father, his kids, his wife and the new man in her life (Michael Rispoli). They may be nags, but they have a point. Any chance for redemption seems bogus.

The script is the work of Steve Conrad, who wrote “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway,” another underdeveloped relationship story featuring a stellar cast. Still, that movie generated genuine sympathy for its central characters, and Robert Duvall and the late Richard Harris grabbed at the chance to play them. Cage demonstrates considerable bravery by playing foolish, absent-minded Dave, but at some point the character becomes not only unlikable but uninteresting.