Thanks to J.D. Salinger we know everything there is to know about teenage angst. The book (Catcher in the Rye, for those who don’t read much) was about a boy growing up and dealing with becoming a mature individual. Dealing with rejection, lust, trust, friendship, loss. Basically, becoming an adult without a reliable, constant authority figure to help along. A good book, maybe I should re-read it. In fact, after I’m done with this review, I just might. The music industry has milked this ‘angst’ concept to death, first with Nirvana a decade ago, and currently with all the neo-punk teenage bands, all trying to sound really depressed, disillusioned, and lost in this big, loud world. But this is something different altogether, a movie about a middle-aged man who’s basically in the process of growing up, maturing. Perhaps I didn’t get the point of the movie at all, but this is all I kept thinking it’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ for adults.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the concept. It’s definitely unusual, and attractive. It’s just not my cup of tea. Consider this dilemma of the main character. He works as a weatherman (duh!), and his current pay is 900k a year. He works 2-3 hours a day. He’s divorced. His daydream is to move up in the world, to get a gig at a big TV station, in a big city. He feels lost, unaccomplished, alone without that big break. Yup, with 80% of his time available for his own amusement, and just under a million in salary, and he feels unaccomplished. You’d think it’s mid-life crisis, or just another caricature of a spoiled white man. But I think this is mid-life angst. I think there’s a lot of that going on around us. The man is not spoiled, he is troubled. I personally cannot identify with his lifestyle, but I’m definitely watching his story, this is gonna be good.
The man is played by Nicolas Cage (David, subdued); his ex-wife is Hope Davis (Noreen, permanently annoyed); his dying father is Michael Caine (Robert, weary and patient); his daughter is Gemmenne de la Pena (Shelly, an awkward, quiet teenager). This is basically the nuclear family, and despite being related these people spend most of the movie discovering how to communicate effectively. The film is not about communication, and not about having the right priorities and putting work on one level and family – on another. Sure, these themes come up frequently, but the movie doesn’t stumble over them, it has a bigger story to tell. Despite giving us characters we cannot easily identify with, the movie tries to generalize our own struggle, our everyday angst and for the most part, it succeeds.
The fact that it comes from the same director who gave us Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring, and Mousehunt, this is a great accomplishment. Gore Verbinski throws away the special effects, and loud music. He just tells us a story of a few people who should be much closer, much more understanding and forgiving, but they’re not. And they’re a family. Wow, what a great metaphor.
The work, the commute, the chores take so much of our energies away that ther’s nothing left to give to the loved ones. And they really want to give something: Robert (Caine) is trying to share a moment with his David (Cage) before he dies, but he just doesn’t have any good opportunity. They spend a lot of time together on the way to yet another doctor’s appointment (and on the way back home) but somehow these times are not spent talking, just staring out the window, at other people stuck in traffic.
This part I identified with immediately, and it hit home right away. We’re both in the same car, but we’re miles apart because we’re on the road, and we’re sharing that road with others. Can’t talk. Can’t share. Can’t be intimate. The movie doesn’t help with advice, and doesn’t solve anyone’s problems. Each character moves along his or her routine, and essentially changes nothing. Routine is comfortable. Even if it’s not very effective. Very early in the movie David decides to start spending his spare time with his daughter Shelly by signing up for classes that neither of them wants to attend. Why? Because he might have read somewhere, or overheard at one point that it might be a cool pastime. All this free time is wasted. Good intentions, but poorly implemented.
David wants to get back with Noreen, and Robert wants Shelly to lose her baby fat. Noreen wants to move on with her personal life, and Shelly just wants to be popular. I can totally understand the teenager being unreasonable, even hysterical in her approach to such issues, but the grown-ups are just as bad. They’re all trying to grow up and to cope with the world that’s been unchanged for decades. It’s about time you guys matured.
The movie is a quiet, existential study of human nature that wants progress but is afraid to leave its familiar route. It’s intelligent, honest and brutally sad, but it’s also true to its characters. No happy endings, and no easy solutions for people who are stuck in their lives, know it, but won’t do anything about it. I think I’m going to read that book now, and maybe try to change one thing about my daily routine tomorrow. Maybe…