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Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" is cool

By Peter Keough

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Directed by Ang Lee. Written by James Schamus based on the novel by Rick Moody. With Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Christina Ricci, Adam Hann-Byrd, Tobey Maguire, and Jamey Sheridan. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. At the Nickelodeon the Kendall Square, and the West Newton and in the suburbs.

As befits its title, Ang Lee's adaptation of Rick Moody's sourly hip novel The Ice Storm is cold, brittle, treacherous, and sometimes otherworldly in its beauty. As in his blithe and rollicking version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Lee makes foreign terrain his own by subjecting it to the Arctic eye of an enthralled, acutely observant outsider, one attuned to the social and sexual fecklessness, self-delusion, and dogged endurance of all human kind. Abetted by producer James Schamus's taut screenplay, which tightens up the novel's structure and dispels much of its hip self-loathing (this script is almost as accomplished as Emma Thompson's Oscar-winning rendition of Sense and Sensibility) and gifted with a mostly brilliant ensemble cast, Lee's frigidly delicate Ice Storm lacks only a little warmth.

New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1973 seems today nearly as foreign and far away as provincial England of the 19th century. A wealthy, woody suburban enclave, this home of the unsatisfied upper crust is just getting wind of the late-'60s sexual revolution. An ill, not to mention rank, wind it is too, and coupled with ongoing revelations of the Watergate investigation, it threatens to blow down the community's façade of family values. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline), for example, catches young next-door neighbor Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood) dry-humping his daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) in the Carvers' basement playroom. Ben is in the Carver house in the first place because he's having an affair with Mikey's mother, Janey (Sigourney Weaver); nonetheless he berates his 13-year-old daughter and her beardless swain and irately escorts her home.

Meanwhile, Ben's glaze-eyed 15-year-old son, Paul, makes tentative efforts to dispose of his virginity at his preppy boarding school, focusing on spoiled teenybopper Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes), who invites him to join her for recreational drugs at her parent-vacated Park Avenue penthouse. Undeterred by her father's admonitions, Wendy tries to extend her conquests in the Carver household by playing doctor and then some with Mikey's pre-pubescent kid brother Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Numbed by her husband's infidelity and despairing of the feel-good pop therapies of the period, Ben's wife, Elena (Joan Allen), resorts to shoplifting. All comes to a head, of sorts, when the couples convene at a wife-swapping "key" party and the pathetically fallacious storm of the title freezes everything into a snow globe of lethal beauty.

Adult hypocrisy and adolescent concupiscence in the suburbs is nothing new, but unlike the book, Lee and his actors overcome stereotype to find new humor and humanity in the premise. They wander through their void of a world (which Ang re-creates with a loving feel for bad fashion sense and worse pop-cultural fetishes and philosophies) seemingly without a clue, stumbling into their petty, self-fulfilling tragedies with plaintive wilfullness.

The adult actors convey with heartbreaking precision their characters' disillusionment and non-comprehension. Kline accords Ben a depth of misery and a slow-dying decency that makes his fall from grace resonate far beyond the mere come-uppance of a scumbag. Joan Allen finds fresh poignance for her now patented role of the wronged wife, and Weaver's tough-cookie Janey brings to her hardbitten silence a ring of pathos. Only Jamey Sheridan makes a vague impression as Janey's husband, Jim, which is perhaps appropriate. The young actors, on the other hand, may be too young to be in touch with the times or with their motivations: Wendy's sexual predation, Paul's disaffection, Mikey's loopiness, Sandy's mute weirdness.

Some of Lee's touches are lacking in subtlety (does Wendy have to be wearing a Nixon mask during her indiscretion with Mikey?), but for the most part the sexual pratfalls are underplayed to the point of somnambulism. This makes the familiar strange, but also at times a little strained. The detachment is underscored by a snide, semi-stoned voiceover narrative from Paul, the character least involved in the central events. Stranded in a marooned commuter-rail car at the height of the storm, he broods on the parallels between the Fantastic Four and the mystery of family ties. Lee broods too, and it's not until the film's dazzling dawn epiphany that he finally chills out.

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