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In The Weather Man, director Gore Verbinski has achieved the impossible. It’s not getting another terrific sad-sack performance from star Nicolas Cage, who has already wrenched guts in Leaving Las Vegas and personified writerly angst in Adaptation. And it’s not taking Steve Conrad’s doggedly miserable script and presenting it as a credible portrayal of midlife crisis instead of a piled-on heap of melodrama.
Rather, the accomplishment is this: making Bob Seger’s Chevy-pushing “Like a Rock” poignant again (or, perhaps more accurately, for the first time). Yes, its initial mention—the opening line of a speech that hapless David (Cage) gives at a gathering to celebrate his sick father, Robert (Michael Caine)—seems a bit ludicrous. But when the highbrow Robert, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, plays the song while sitting with David in his car and asks him to explain how exactly the lyrics relate to him—well, it’s just about the saddest thing in a movie overrun with sadness. And if Seger’s wistfulness doesn’t make you start blubbering, it’ll at least move you to call your folks when you get home.
Cage’s Chicago weather anchor is a functioning depressive, capable of appearing cheery when delivering forecasts he knows are only guesses, yet barely able to handle even small setbacks outside of the station. Polite recognition from fans results in David’s begging them to leave him alone. Not having enough cash to buy his dad a paper or a cup of coffee upon request seems a sonly failure tantamount to, say, landing in jail or getting kicked out of Harvard. But those are David’s lesser worries: There are also Dad’s illness and his barely concealed disappointment in David’s choices; an ex-wife, Noreen (Hope Davis), who’s so bitter that nearly every encounter the former couple has ends up in an argument; and two early-teens children (Gemmenne de la Peña and About a Boy’s Nicholas Hoult) with problems David feels too distanced to solve. Plus, people occasionally throw food at him.
David’s not completely portrayed as a victim, however—constant screw-ups and knee-jerk reactions show that he carries a big part of the blame for his damaged relationships. Smartly, though, the filmmakers support David’s day-to-day travails with a running inner monologue—often good intentions punctuated by “fuck”s—that keeps the character human rather than irredeemably unsympathetic. And though Cage’s hangdog gloominess permeates the movie, Conrad’s script is frequently funny, especially in such moments as David’s reactions to Noreen’s boyfriend (petulantly calling him a “dildo”) and his constant analysis of his lot in life (“I bet no one threw a pie at, like, Harriet Tubman”).
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Conrad, whose last major project was 1993’s similarly bleak Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, does inject some hopefulness here, in the form of an invitation to David to apply for a position at a national morning show. Of course, given that it would mean a move to New York, plus further entrenchment in an unfulfilling career (“I receive a large reward for zero effort and little contribution,” David admits), it’s a dubious carrot. Yet David keeps trying, however dejectedly, to make his world brighter. “Easy doesn’t enter into grownup life,” his father cynically tells him. But by the time David begins to make peace with this, you’ll wish that, for him, just once it would.
In Nine Lives, misery runs even deeper, but the result may leave you cold. Writer-director Rodrigo García presents loosely connected slice-of-life vignettes about—yep—nine women, with a character from one story sometimes showing up in another. It’s a device García—son of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez—is obviously fond of, having previously created 2000’s Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and 2001’s Ten Tiny Love Stories.
The circumstances in each tale vary widely, but themes of connectedness and the preciousness of life are heavily hammered throughout. Each story lasts 10 to 12 minutes and is kicked off with a placard naming the damsel who’s about to be shown in peak distress. The gambit seems to suggest that there’s honesty here, frank Weather Man–esque glimpses into the drama of everyday life. But many of them feel contrived for maximum squirminess—and the result is a big So what?
One offender is a blatant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rip-off, with a couple visiting the new home of their well-to-do friends. For no apparent reason, Sonia (Holly Hunter) begins spilling bitter, embarrassing details about her marriage almost immediately after taking a seat on her hosts’ couch, with only the abrupt finale shutting her up. Another portrait shows a distraught, strait-jacket-worthy woman (Lisa Gay Hamilton) returning to her childhood home to confront her estranged father with, it’s suggested, his earlier abuse. And the most far-fetched story involves the reunion of a deaf man named Andrew (William Fichtner) and his former wife, Lorna (Amy Brenneman), at Andrew’s subsequent wife’s wake. The woman committed suicide, and most everyone blames Lorna—except Andrew, who instead of turning a cold shoulder chases Lorna into a room at the funeral home and signs that he masturbates while thinking about her.
There are a couple of more realistic, and therefore more moving, pieces here, including the anxious and terse conversation between a middle-aged woman (Kathy Baker) and her husband (Joe Mantegna) before she undergoes a mastectomy, and an annual mother-and-daughter (Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning) picnic in a cemetery, though whose grave they’re visiting is never made clear. The most gut-wrenching of these stories, however, is the chance supermarket meeting of Diana, a married, pregnant woman (Robin Wright Penn), and Damian (Jason Isaacs), her old, also-married flame. Penn expresses an entire relationship’s worth of emotions during her time at the store, from giddiness to desperation to heartbreak, as sparks once again fly and the unspoken suggestion of an affair lingers between them.
García films each of these vignettes with a single Steadicam shot, which at times brings a sense of immediacy but mostly just feels like a distracting trick. More impressive are his suddenly artful frames, such as a mirror behind Sonia and her husband that catches the reflection of their friends during Sonia’s diatribe. Ultimately, though, there’s not much of a bigger picture uniting Nine Lives’ 115 minutes together—nothing like, say, the meditation on race relations offered by the multiple plotlines of the recently released Crash. It’s just a collection of short stories, no more insightful or remarkable than the melodramas you can already catch on TV. CP