A well-observed and deftly performed examination of upper-middle-class emotional deep freeze, “The Ice Storm” is an intelligent, adult American film. Pic reps another insightful look at family and generational strains by Taiwanese director Ang Lee, this time within the context of a morally unhinging East Coast suburbia of the early 1970s. Made in a careful, straightforward way with due respect for its literary origin, this Fox Searchlight release looks to use a good critical response to fuel a healthy commercial life in upscale situations.
Based on Rick Moody’s well-received 1994 novel, film tracks the furtive emotional adventures and transgressions of middle-aged parents and their sexually budding teenage kids at a time culturally dominated by Watergate, mind-altering substances and “Brady Bunch” fashions.
Focus is admirably balanced between the desires and difficulties of the individual characters and the larger matter of family dissolution. Cinematically, pic traverses “Ordinary People” territory, while the more literary-minded may think of Updike, Cheever and Salinger as points of reference.
Set during the Thanksgiving holiday in 1973 (the 10th anniversary of JFK’s assassination goes unmentioned), story mercifully avoids the cliches common to many dramas set during enforced family reunions. Sixteen-year-old prep school student Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) is returning to the New Canaan, Conn., home of his parents, Ben (Kevin Kline) and Elena (Joan Allen).
A chill has set in on the marriage that is as paralyzing as the gloomy late autumn weather, and while Elena appears near the breaking point, Ben at least makes an attempt to communicate with Paul, and with his precocious 14-year-old daughter, Wendy (Christina Ricci), a bright Watergate junkie.
Ben has reason to be a little looser than his wife, since he’s carrying on a discreet affair with neighbor Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), whose husband, Jim (Jamey Sheridan), is often away. Their early-teen sons, Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), are close to Wendy, although she wants to make relations with either (or both) even closer, beginning with some I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you’ll-show-me-yours games.
The dominoes begin falling when Wendy and Mikey, thinking they are alone in the latter’s house, begin fooling around, with the ever-provocative Wendy friskily sporting a Richard Nixon mask. But they are caught by uncautious Ben, who is upstairs hanging around after an abortive assignation with Janey. If the kids don’t question his presence there, it doesn’t take Elena a second to figure things out, provoking this already brittle woman to all but crack like china.
Instead of spending all their time together during the holiday weekend, the family members believably have their own priorities and plans, which creates four separate story strands that are effectively juggled during the final act. Paul, who has the hots for a wealthy schoolmate, takes the commuter train into Manhattan one evening and gets wasted with her and another friend. Wendy, left at home alone, eventually calls on Sandy and lures him into bed, while Mikey wanders out by himself into the quickly developing sleet and ice storm.
But most prominent is an adult cocktail party that, to the surprise of the fiercely estranged Hoods, turns out to be a partner-swapping event at which the women select their sex mates for the evening by picking men’s car keys out of a bowl. Before things get to this part of the evening, however, Janey stuns Ben by giving him the brush-off, while a brooding Elena considers her options for revenge. A sequence of tragedies, both minor and major, ironically brings the Hood family closer together, if perhaps only momentarily.
Small character details are subtly identified: Paul’s slightly arch, literary way of speaking, Elena and Wendy’s channeling of their frustrated sense of rebellion through petty shoplifting, Ben’s tendency to oververbalize as a way of convincing himself that he is communicating and keeping all his relationships afloat. Rather more pronounced are the characters’ sensory addictions, to drugs by the kids, booze by the adults, and sex all around.
James Schamus’ script is constructed with studious care, attentiveness to dramatic unities and an eye to cultural detail. Beaucoup backgrounding is filled in via glimpses of contemporaneous TV shows, which are often droning around the edges, and Carol Oditz’s costumes tartly bring back the realities of what must be the most frightening fashion era of postwar times.
Lee, who is enjoying one of the most surprising of modern directorial careers, and in the process is neatly disproving the theory that one must be of a particular culture in order to express it persuasively, is showing no particular progress as a visual stylist; the pic’s rather dark, flat look could have been more evocative.
But the upside comes in his storytelling and work with the actors, all of whom are clearly tuned in to the same low-key, emotionally expressive wavelength.
Kline excels as a man whose fumbling efforts to keep his family above water run counter to his own emotional drift. Weaver, amusingly decked out to look like a post-hippie-era dragon lady, starkly etches the boldest character of the lot, while Allen is a definitive mad housewife of the era, although the actress should now probably branch out from the stoical repressed hausfrau roles in which she has excelled since coming to screen prominence in “Nixon.”
The kids are excellent, with Ricci nicely adding an emotional dimension to her patented caustic teen perf and Maguire impressing as a smart kid who shows signs of being able to cope nicely with adolescent turmoil. Wood and Hann-Byrd are credible as the close-in-age brothers.
The literary symbolism of the titular storm will be meaningful to some and too explicit for others, but the various onscreen elements are all handled with good and sober judgment. Production credits are pro, with Mychael Danna’s score distinctively employing gamelan orchestrations, among other unusual effects.