Warning: do NOT see this movie if you've had a bad day!
Man, these characters are all seriously fucked up. And I use that profane word not for shock value, but because it becomes a main plot point.
Basic plot setup: Nicolas Cage plays a TV weatherman who works for a Chicago station that's patterned after WGN -- it's called "WCH" and is channel "6" and uses the same graphics and typefaces that WGN uses.
This is largely irrelevant, actually, to most of the film. Cage's character is named Dave Spritz -- shortened from "Spritzel", because Dave's father (Michael Caine) is a prize-winning novelist named Robert Spritzel, and Dave wanted to establish his own identity. Robert is an overbearing, domineering father who doesn't approve of anything Dave has done in his life. Almost every time we see the two of them together (the father is becoming ill with cancer), they barely look at each other.
In this he has failed. He's not a very good weatherman, by his own admission. His marriage has also failed, although his ex-wife (an almost-unrecognizable Hope Davis) is at least civil to him and they share custody of two... well, seriously messed-up kids, a teenage son and pre-teen daughter. More on these two in a moment.
We learn in flashbacks why the marriage failed, and although Dave is being considered for a gig on a "Good Morning America"-type national show out of New York, you find yourself wondering how a man this sour got a job in TV in the first place. People seem to detest him so much that they throw fast food at him out of cars at a moment's notice, and every time we see him in public, he's being rude to someone who just wants to say hello to a TV personality.
The messed-up kids? Well, the son is being "helped" by a guidance counselor, and this turns into a rather disturbing relationship, punctuated by a scene with Cage and the counselor which I thought was the only time in the movie when Cage really expressed his true feelings openly.
The daughter is overweight, can't seem to find anything she is interested in, and wants to please her father, but can't figure out how to do that either. Later in the film they do wind up connecting, when Dave goes to New York for an interview for the national show, and somehow manages to bring her and his dad along.
I found this unrealistic, plus the way he acts toward both the people on that show, and the people he works with at the Chicago station made me wonder why anyone would even talk to him.
Somehow, out of this depressing mess they managed to come up with a happy ending, and then Dave speaks the truest words he says in the entire film:
And that, I think, is what the movie is trying to tell us. The film itself may be depressing, but that's its message too, that out of a depressing life, you can still make something out of yourself. And, there are even some funny moments, and they aren't forced -- particularly involving archery, of all things.
Chicago looks great, in a depressing sort of way. It was shot in the winter of 2004, snow everywhere, shot mostly in subdued blues and grays, and that depresses the atmosphere even more. It's like watching a train wreck; it's not a pleasant thing, but somehow, it compels you to watch.
If you do see it, know that there is NO ONE in the TV biz -- not anyone I know, anyway -- who is ANYTHING like Dave Spritz. Cage, incidentally, spent quite a bit of time working with WGN-TV weatherman Tom Skilling, to learn how to work in front of the green screens that most TV weather people use.