Monday 29 December 2014

Movie Review: The Ice Storm (1997)

A family drama about dysfunctionalities hidden beneath the surface of middle class normalcy, The Ice Storm uncovers emotional wreckage but fails to properly engage with its characters.

It's the early 1970s in the quaint town of New Canaan, Connecticut. Thanksgiving is approaching, winter is setting in and an ice storm is in the forecast. The Watergate scandal is brewing, and a new wind of sexual and drug experimentation sweeps through the seemingly staid suburban subdivisions. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is married to Elena (Joan Allen), but their marriage spark has long since extinguished, driving Ben into having an affair with married neighbour Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). Elena meanwhile is depressed and resorts to shoplifting. The latest adult trend is the "key party", where couples swap partners at the end of the evening through a random draw car key lottery.

The Hoods' teenaged children are Paul (Tobey Maguire), now attending college, and the younger Wendy (Christina Ricci), and they are having issues of their own. Paul has developed a crush on classmate Libbets (Katie Holmes), but his roommate Francis (David Krumholtz) always nabs whichever girl Paul is interested in. The brooding Wendy is into full sexual experimentation mode, and her targets include Janey's two boys Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). When the ice storm arrives and outdoor conditions become treacherous, the indoor drama also reaches critical levels.

Ang Lee directed this adaptation of the Rick Moody book, and while it is always salaciously irresistible to peak behind the curtains of the neighbours' bedroom windows to spy on dirty secrets, and the wintry New England setting is attractive, this is as far as the film's appeal goes. Past the sex, drugs, infidelity and misery running rampant through two generations of suburbanites, The Ice Storm offers little in the way of engagement.

Part of the problems is that the characters are reactive (or, more accurately, inactive) and living under the shroud of non-communication. They say so little that they never become rounded people. Ben and Elena are presumably at the centre of the film, but close to two hours pass and next to nothing is revealed about them, except that their marriage is in trouble. Even less is known about the Carvers as people, other than that their relationship is also broken.

Ironically, Paul and Wendy emerge as more provocative than their parents, with Wendy in particular harbouring all kinds of strange intentions, victimizing Mikey and Sandy in pursuit of her own journey of discovery. Paul's clumsy attempts to carve out private time with Libbets backfires in humourous fashion.

Other than frequent viewings of President Nixon on television and some fashion garments on the wild side, the early 1970s era is underused. The dialogue is generic, and the James Schamus screenplay is unable to convey a genuine vibe for the turbulence of the times. Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver and Joan Allen are strongly associated with the 1980s or later years, and not much is done with hairstyles and mannerisms to help them relocate to an earlier time.

The Ice Storm is a polished observation of a society in flux. But it remains a superficial view, as cold to the soul as the ice unleashed by nature.

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