Frigid Blast of Remoteness at the Eye of ‘Ice Storm’
More aptly named than it’s prepared to acknowledge, “The Ice Storm’s” glacial saga of New England WASPs behaving badly is as frigid as its name. Burdened with a story of some of the world’s least interesting people going through a holiday crisis, director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus get as close as any creative team could to making matters involving, but the task is finally too much for them.
The Taiwanese-born Lee, whose last film was “Sense and Sensibility,” finds the milieu of repressed New Canaan, Conn., during 1973’s Thanksgiving weekend as fascinating as the remote interior of Papua, New Guinea, and though he, production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Carol Oditz and set decorator Stephanie Carroll carefully mimic the period, they can’t succeed in making it our concern.
Partly this is because the affluent suburban milieu of martinis and drained swimming pools filled with autumn leaves is overly familiar from the work of novelists John Updike and John Cheever as well as numerous movies about the country club set. More to the point, this stodgy, hermetic world is not one of enormous intrinsic interest, and it’s difficult to watch “The Ice Storm” without thinking of Martin Mull’s satiric blues lyric, “I felt so low down deep inside, I threw my drink across the lawn.”
Based on a novel by Rick Moody, “The Ice Storm” is filled, in case anyone should miss the point, with images of frost ranging from the natural event of its title to ice cubes in a tray. The first frozen thing we see is a commuter train headed back to Connecticut from Manhattan and containing 16-year-old prep schooler Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire). Waiting for him at the New Canaan station are his parents and his younger sister, each of whom has numerous reasons for looking, as they do, like cast members from the original “Night of the Living Dead.”
Father Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is having an inept and unsatisfactory affair with neighbor Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), a predatory suburban virago whose husband, Jim (Jamey Sheridan), is often out of town. And though mother Elena Hood (Joan Allen) does no more than suspect this truth, she’s still edginess itself and, like almost everyone else in the film, apparently has forgotten how to smile.
Given that she’s 14 years old, it’s not surprising that sister Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci of the “Addams Family” films) is loaded with unhappiness and attitude, unable to decide whether to devote herself to the Watergate crisis or the sexual fantasies of the Carver’s two sons, spacey Mikey (Elijah Wood) or explosion-loving Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd).
Paul has some things he needs to deal with as well, like his crush on wealthy schoolmate Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes). But, as with the rest of the family, the fact that his difficulties are presented with care is no guarantee that we will care about them.
Aside from its final storm, “The Ice Storm’s” turning point is that relic of suburbia past, a wife-swapping key party, where the men put their car keys in a bowl and the women go home with (gasp!) the man whose keys they select. The film treats this tedious event as reverentially as Margaret Mead did the coming-of-age rituals of Samoa, even though the tribe in question is so off-putting the anthropologist would likely have fallen asleep or fled in terror.
It’s unfortunate that as capable a team as director Lee and screenwriter-producer Schamus (who also collaborated on “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “The Wedding Banquet”) should have become fascinated with such unpromising material. And in all fairness, “The Ice Storm” does manage to have some affecting moments, and Lee handles the film’s teenage actors with a sure touch.
But the setting has mandated a terribly constrained style of performance for all concerned, encouraging the actors to tiptoe through their words as rigidly as highly choreographed marionettes on the end of a string. Typically hamstrung is Kline, so delightful in farce, who comes off fatuous and close to boring here. Only the blessedly reliable Allen manages to make something real and human out of her character. Otherwise, when one of her co-stars says, “This has been kind of a discouraging evening,” it’s difficult not to nod in agreement.
* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality and drug use, including scenes involving children, and for language. Times guidelines: Everything is presented discreetly.
‘The Ice Storm’
Kevin Kline: Ben Hood
Sigourney Weaver: Janey Carver
Joan Allen: Elena Hood
Jamey Sheridan: Jim Carver
Christina Ricci: Wendy Hood
Elijah Wood: Mikey Carver
Adam Hann-Byrd: Sandy Carver
Tobey Maguire: Paul Hood
A Good Machine production, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Ang Lee. Producers Ted Hope, James Schamus, Ang Lee. Screenplay James Schamus, based on the novel by Rick Moody. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes. Editor Tim Squyres. Costumes Carol Oditz. Music Mychael Danna. Production design Mark Friedberg. Art director Bob Shaw. Set decorator Stephanie Carroll. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
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