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Partly Sonny 

You can take as much of Nicolas Cage's "serious" acting as you want. You can even give him a well-deserved Oscar for his work in Leaving Las Vegas. Me, I'll take his comic acting over his serious parts any day. At least he got a Best Actor nomination for Adaptation, but where was his name for the manic performance in Honeymoon in Vegas?

He's back in fine form with one of his better comic roles in The Weather Man which, for some reason, is described in the film's press kit as representing director Gore Verbinski's "first foray into drama."

Well, OK, there are dramatic elements to this film, from the director of Mousehunt and the soon-to-be all three chapters of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. There's some family strife, a heavy-duty medical problem, some stuff about the meaning of life. But this still comes across as a sophisticated comedy more than a drama. And the main reason for that is Cage's portrayal of the title character.

He plays David Spritz, local Chicago TV weather man, who works two hours a day, makes lots of money and is miserable. He tries his best to be a good dad to his two kids, but there's a big difference between an in-house and out-of-house father. His marriage to the icy Noreen (Hope Davis) has been over for a while. She's already planning to marry someone else. The thing is, no matter how hard he tries, he always seems to pay too much attention to his sad, overweight, smoker daughter Shelly (Gemmenne de la Pena) and not enough to his son Mike (Nicholas Hoult) who, at 15, has just come out of marijuana rehab. His wife? He's never had a clue about her wants or needs. It gets worse: David's father, Robert (Michael Caine, with an American accent), is a successful author who can't begin to understand how his son has let everything in his life get so out of control. And now the disapproving Robert, a man of few words, is diagnosed with lymphoma.

I know, so far this doesn't sound very funny. But through an extraordinarily strong script, within which writer Steve Conrad takes a lot of risks, it is, much of the time, darkly hilarious.

When first met, Dave is wearing his usual scowl, which he suddenly forces into a winning smile -- all part of regular practice sessions in front of his bathroom mirror, in order to look just right on TV. And there's a big job offer, like a carrot on a stick, being waved in front of him, to do the weather on a network show, so he also gets some practice in on those sweeping arm and hand moves the best TV forecasters use.

The comic part takes the shape of irony -- Is it always raining or snowing or being icy in Chicago, where this weather man only wants sunny skies? It's also there in the form of slapstick -- Dave doesn't enjoy being recognized on the street, and when he's not refusing to sign autographs for chagrined fans, he's being pelted with everything from cold drinks to messy sandwiches. There's also a brief, very funny scene with a "weather man groupie" that's right out of the Russ Meyer school of filmmaking, from the way she looks to the way it's staged.

Such is his life, filled with ongoing little annoyances. Eventually the film becomes a study of Dave's face -- sometimes showing a mixed-up bundle of insecurity, sometimes flashing a hopeful smile, as when it's clear that all he wants is for everything to be the way it used to be. As the film progresses, though, it can be argued that he has selective memory of the "good times." The revelation, via flashback, of who's to blame when certain things went wrong within the family unit -- we're talking tartar sauce here -- is told in a way that will likely make half the audience laugh and the other half cringe.

Both Conrad and Verbinski go for -- and achieve -- a mostly upbeat ending. But that's not till after we're treated to some very strong language, some lessons in archery, an explanation of "living funerals" and an odd, partly funny/partly sobering indictment of fast food.

An added treat is the inclusion of Bob Seger's song "Like a Rock," which leads to one of the film's rare genuinely tender moments.

Caine keeps it all dignified with a typically strong performance (although that accent is a tad strange). But it's Cage's film, and he goes beyond expectations in creating a character who's unhappy and dissatisfied and concerned that his life, like so many of his weather forecasts, "didn't work out the way I predicted."

The Weather Man; Rated: R; Directed by Gore Verbinski; Starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine.

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