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The Ice Storm is all about irony. It takes us back to November 1973, a time when Nixon was under Watergate investigation and wife-swapping was "in." In this time of great freedom, the fabric of society was threatening to rip apart. Our faith in our leaders was crumbling and our faith in family values threatened to deteriorate. Yet while adults tried to behave like kids, kids tried to behave like adults.
The Ice Storm (based on a novel by Rick Moody) takes us inside the Hood household, an upper-middle class family in the suburbs of New Canaan, Connecticut. The Hoods are suffering an "ice storm" of their own: the father, Ben Hood (Kevin Kline), is having an affair and his wife, Elena (Joan Allen), suspects what's happening. As a result, she's stiff and distant. The kids, played by Christina Ricci and Tobey Maguire, have their own formal, "grown up," language that they use when they're together: "So how are the parental units functioning these days," says son Paul (Maguire). 14-year-old daughter Wendy (Ricci) plays sex games with the boys next door, Mikey Carver (Elijah Woods) and his little brother Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), while father Ben Hood has an affair with the boys' mother, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). Meanwhile, Elena's struggles with her own feelings lead her to shoplifting. The Hood family is on the verge of self-destructing.
Director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility and The Wedding Banquet) seems genuinely concerned with the characters. He keeps the mood serious, but he infuses most scenes with undercurrents of comedy. In one scene, for example, Wendy puts on a Nixon mask before she and Mikey start making out, and in another scene, Ben Hood wanders around the Carver house in his underwear after Janey Carver suddenly jumps in the car and drives off. "Birth control," she says and disappears. He ends up practicing golf swings in the living room.
The movie's ultimate irony is supplied by the very real ice storm that strikes New Canaan on Thanksgiving--the worst ice storm in 30 years. While the adults are away at a key party (where the men throw their car keys in a bowl and the women chose their sex partners by drawing keys one by one), the storm coats the town in a thick glaze. But during the ice storm and the tragedy it brings, the family finds the strength that has somehow eluded them in the past.
The Ice Storm is a wonderful example of ensemble acting (although Joan Allen is in danger of becoming type cast in frigid wife roles). However, it's also a good example of the differences between film and literature: film is confined to exteriors whereas literature can much more easily give us glimpses into the inner lives of the characters. As a result, the characters in The Ice Storm tend to become recognizable as types, but their actual motivations tend to remain hidden, lost in translation from the printed page. The movie looks and feels like a metaphor in action: we're supposed to see all the irony that's been worked out very carefully by the filmmakers. But this approach also robs the movie of its spontaneity. Much that happens in the movie, including the movie's big climactic scenes during the ice storm, seems rigged.
Where The Ice Storm succeeds most effectively is in its recreation of the time period. The key party sequence in particular gives us the carefree attitudes of the early '70s but undercuts the freedom with a sense of anxiety. We witness the men as they begin to dread having their keys drawn from the bowl. When a wife draws her own husband's keys, the response is relief. Instead of giving us the stereotypical image of the swinging '70s, The Ice Storm gives us an amazingly insightful portrait. It allows us to see past the ugly, fat collars, the knee-high boots, and the leather mini-skirts and right into the fears and insecurities of the time period.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]