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Gambit Weekly Souls on Ice

By Rick Barton

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  In what is at once the funniest and most disturbing scene in Ang Lee's magnificent The Ice Storm, two New England teenagers stumble toward a sexual experience, although it's not clear that either really wants to. The girl is 14, the boy is 15, and they've petted previously but never with much urgency and always, it seems, without even a trace of pleasure. As the youngsters almost numbly negotiate who will now touch whom and where and for how long, the girl suddenly finds a Nixon mask, which she slips over her head. Negotiations continue until clothes are unbuttoned and the boy is lying between the girl's jeans-clad legs. And all the while, she leaves the Nixon mask on. The scene reverberates with symbolism, of course. It is 1973, and the chilled gray weather, the messy den, the children joyless in their sex play and the haunting visage of America's most disreputable president all conjure a nation that has sacrificed its soul on the altar of material prosperity and self-indulgence.

Adapted from Rick Moody's novel, The Ice Storm is the story of two 1970s families in New Canaan, Conn., and by extension their entire suburban community and even America as a whole. Both fathers, Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) and Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan), are prosperous businessmen who have been able to provide their families wonderful, spacious homes situated on huge, tree-shaded lots. Neither Ben's wife, Elena (Joan Allen), nor Jim's wife, Janey (Sigourney Weaver), works, but both are discontent, though in different ways. Sixteen-year-old Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) attends an elite prep school in New York City. His sister, Wendy (Christina Ricci), attends school in New Canaan along with Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd) Carver. The two families are next-door neighbors, and their lives are intertwined in a number of ways. Ben is having an affair with Janey; Wendy is the girl in the Nixon mask, Mikey her partner. This is the time of waterbeds, leisure suits, flared pants and moral rot. The Hoods and the Carvers have everything they could conceivably want except a sense of purpose. Then on a late fall night when the Connecticut coast is rocked with the worst ice storm in a generation, the children slip away when they're supposed to stay home, and the parents go to a key party, a polite name for a wife-swapping lottery.

Extracting Moody's rich detail, screenwriter James Schamus and director Lee have crammed this film with meaning. Nothing is random. All text points to subtext. Nixon sweats and prevaricates from every TV screen. Parents cheat. Wendy steals candy. Paul smokes dope in his dorm room. Mikey and Wendy pig out on junk food. Though she hardly needs to, Elena shoplifts makeup from the local drugstore. The world is full of dishonesty and disloyalty. Whereas only a half-generation earlier, friendship meant steering clear of a pal's girl, Paul's prep school roommate routinely strives to score with any girl Paul finds attractive. Such is the final result of the sexual revolution. Friendship has become much less important than sexual conquest.

Sex, of course, is a central issue here. But all the magic, all the warmth, all the personal elements have been stripped away. Janey and Ben couple on a gray afternoon while Elena runs errands. But their sex has all the heat of Jello. At some point, there is presumably a spasm of physical pleasure, but no connection is made. Janey could just as well be using a stud service. Afterwards, when Ben tries to talk about a concern at work, Janey chides him for boring her. Often, we gather, and perhaps not to soil sheets on which Jim will later sleep, Janey and Ben copulate in Sandy's bedroom. The coolness of their illicit union is reflected in the sexual experimentation of their children. They are all looking for something they're clearly not finding in the Pandora's box of the new sexual freedom.

Elena knows what's going on between Ben and Janey, and at first she turns, haltingly, to the church. We learn that she's attended services recently but hasn't continued. And no wonder: the pastor has hair down to his shoulders and speaks in phrases as hip as his outfits. God has become as passe as '50s haircuts. Pastor Philip Edwards (Michael Crumpsty) seems more interested in becoming Elena's lover than her spiritual counselor. He doesn't seem to have a wife, but that doesn't keep him from showing up at the key party. Repelled but directionless, Elena tries to cope by regressing. She envies her 14-year-old daughter and takes to riding a bicycle. Jim makes a comparably adolescent response. He runs away from home, figuratively if not literally. He spends days at a time on business trips, but he's so disconnected from his family that his sons don't realize when he's gone. Eventually, Elena and Jim draw together in sad desperation and resort, like teenagers, to sex in a car.

In a series of images, Lee reminds us of ice's brittleness. Under sudden pressure, it shatters like glass. Drain a family of its warmth, and it cannot hold together. Janey has become so cold in her pursuit of impersonal pleasure that her family is poised to fragment. She moves from a neighbor's husband to another's young adult son. And though she exhibits at least superficial concerns for her children, they are withering in the frost. Bright, handsome, likable and athletic, 15-year-old Mikey uses drugs and escapes into distracted vacancy. Sandy seems even more lost. Lonely and aimless, he blows up all his toys with firecrackers. Questioned about it by Wendy, he shares his fantasies of the treasure of new toys he'll get a few weeks hence at Christmas, new toys he looks forward to destroying in fantastic new ways. Perfunctorily performing her maternal duties, Janey directs Sandy to make noise with a whip instead of cherry bombs, whereupon, left unsupervised as always, Sandy begins to whip the blossoms off a large potted hibiscus. The ultimate price of Janey's chilly negligence will be tragedy, though it's unclear there's enough heart left in her to long care.

Bleak as all this sounds, however, Lee insists on the possibility of redemption. The only real sexual urgency portrayed in the entire film rises between Ben and Elena, husband and wife coupling in the afternoon like the lovers they once were. Perhaps they can stop their slide down the icy slope of self-indulgence. Perhaps their children can be saved. Ben insists that Paul come home for a family meal at Thanksgiving. Before dining, Ben invites his daughter to say grace. And even though the room is filled with tension and faintly concealed acrimony, there's a residual of love there as well. Things have gone bad between Ben and Elena. But there was obviously once something better, something that might be rediscovered and nursed back to health.

Ben and Elena aren't providing the discipline and the nurturing that their children need, but they've instilled in Paul and Wendy something essential: brother and sister clearly love each other. Whereas Mikey and Sandy seem hollow, Paul and Wendy exhibit a moral core. Wendy waxes indignant at Nixon's clumsy cover-up of despicable crimes. Oddly, we can even see her core of decency in the sex games she plays with Sandy, whom she treats with great gentleness and evident concern. Sandy is still just a little boy, and she wishes to be just a little girl with him. Her shocking overture, "You show me yours, and I'll show you mine," is the challenge of a grade school child, not an invitation to sexual contact. Wendy yearns for that earlier time when Ben and Elena acted like adults, and after she's caught in a sexual act with Mikey, she wants her father, literally, to carry her home.

Paul shows a comparable substance. He remains a virgin in an atmosphere of rampant teenage sexual activity. And though he has a boy's natural hunger for sexual experience, he wants that something more that involves interacting with a person and not just the interplay of sexual organs. He's grown fond of a bright classmate named Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes), but when she overindulges in alcohol and drugs one night (activities he's tried to dissuade), he refuses to take advantage of her. Instead, he returns home to his family, striving to keep his curfew. He is caught in the ice storm, but he makes it home where all the members of his family await his return in the rising light and gradual thaw of a new day. Hope springs eternal. The Ice Storm is that rarest of recent cinematic creatures -- an American movie that dares to think of itself as a work of art.

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