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Ang Lee's dark tale of key parties and other 1970s ennui gets the Criterion BD treatment....
Criterion / 113 Minutes / 1997 / Unrated / Street Date: July 23, 2013
I never read Ron Moody’s novel The Ice Storm but from what little I knew about it, the book seemed impossible to translate into film. The story of two emotionally closed-off New Canaan families trying to connect with themselves and each other is distant and interior and made for the written word. Yet Ang Lee, who would later win an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain (and then another for Life of Pi), manages to make the interior exterior; or at least exterior enough to realize these people are encased in an epic malaise. The ones who try their best to break out of it are no happier than those who just wallow in it.
Ben Hood (Kevin Kline, better known for his accessible sophistication but still a terrific brooder) is a Connecticut suburbanite, husband and father having a loveless affair with neighbor Janey (a cold, indifferent Sigourney Weaver). In fact, most of the adults are bereft of warmth and affection; connect any two characters and there’s nary a thread of warm feelings between them. Ben’s wife Elena (Joan Allen), looks like, and swallows her pride like, a proper ‘50s sitcom mom. But that’s about to change when she finds out about Ben’s affair. Janey’s husband (Jamey Sheridan) is away on business so much that when he finally graces his family with his presence, Janey won’t look up from her magazine and his sons Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd) barely acknowledge him.
Everyone is looking for something to feel about or trying to figure out how to make themselves feel. For the adults, it’s a function of their middle-age, middle-class ennui, as they transition from the swinging ‘60s to the tumultuous ‘70s of Watergate and Vietnam. For the kids, it’s their sexual awakening. Ben and Elena have two children. Fourteen-year old Wendy (Christina Ricci) is a Janey in the making. She’s partial to experimenting on Mikey and Sandy (“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”), and Sandy even has a crush on Wendy, looking down her jeans when she sits in her school chair. But the movie is really told through the eyes of Ben’s other child, Paul (Tobey Maguire). The movie begins with Paul returning home for Thanksgiving from a Manhattan prep school, so he’s the only character who has any idea of what it’s like outside the cocoon of Connecticut. Paul has a crush on rich classmate named Libbets (Katie Holmes), and later, when Paul has a chance to take advantage of Libbets when she’s passed out on the floor, his decision says volumes about himself and how he differs from the rest of his family.
The adults in the movie are stuck in the malaise of people who know there’s something wrong, but they don’t know what it is, so they can’t solve it. A crucial sequence is that vestige of the time, the key party. In a key party, the men put their car keys in a bowl and at the end of the evening, the women, without looking, pick a key and go home with its owner. It makes them think they’re still vibrant and swinging, but it’s really just a patch, a temporary salve to forget their problems. Really, it’s emotional immaturity, and that’s one of the interesting points of the movie, which is how the children are beginning to fall into the same pattern as their parents and vice versa. Everyone expects a 14-year old girl like Wendy to shoplift and try to cultivate their sexual power as adolescents do. But when Elena goes into a drug store and shoves cosmetics in her pocket, and when she considers the advances of a local religious leader, you wonder who is the child and who is the mother. Even Paul’s insecurity echoes his father’s, but his father’s excuse is more tragic: he’s a failed man, and the casting of the likeable Kline keeps the character from being too morose. Sure, this is a tragic story of repressed emotions, but there’s plenty of humor and ultimately a powerful message.
One of the successes of the movie (some would say fault) is that it finds the most microscopic way to tell a societal tale. Not only are the emotions buried, but so is the point. The cultural transition dramatized here never seemed as dramatic as those from the war-torn ‘40s to the Leave it to Beaver ‘50s or from the Leave it to Beaver ‘50s to the Swingin’ ‘60s. But clearly for the moneyed middle-class, the ‘60s seeped into the ‘70s, yet the motivation was different. Instead of a reaction to the staid ‘50s, it was a reaction to the more Capitalistic expectations that were rumbling in society, ones that would manifest themselves, at least on screen, in movies like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. But in Ang Lee’s movie, the world is changing so fast, everyone is standing in place until they decide what they’re going to be next.