The Ice Storm
directed by Ang Lee
Twentieth Century Fox, 1997

In the sexual revolution, Elena Hood is a conscientious objector. That causes no ends of problems for her husband, Ben, who's only too willing to throw himself into the arms of the enemy. Meanwhile, their 16-year-old son, Paul, and 14-year-old daughter, Wendy, are doing everything they can to put themselves in harm's way, with mixed results.

Things are pretty much the same next door at the Carvers, where mom Janey spends her free time entertaining the troops, and her sons, Jim and Mikey, fall in with Wendy's company every chance they get.

The place is New Canaan, Conn. That's a long way from San Francisco, but the ripples generated by the love generation are coming in loud and clear in the fall of 1973. There, in the media shadow of Richard Nixon and Watergate, two families and their neighbors do their best, and worst, to come to grips with the nation's newfound freedom.

The Ice Storm is a snapshot of upper middle-class America at a time when it definitely wasn't looking its best. The Vietnam War had widened the gulf between teens and their parents, and the new morality was challenging the closeness of husbands and wives.

Coming of age then was especially difficult; 16-year-old Paul (Toby Maguire) makes that clear with his frequent comparisons of his family to the Fantastic Four -- the only superheroes, he notes, who are vulnerable because they have to look out for one another.

The problems arise when member of the Hood family stop looking out for one another and get caught up in their own desires: Ben (Kevin Kline) in his one-sided affair with Janey (Sigourney Weaver); Wendy (Christina Ricci) in an "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" encounter with Jim (Jamey Sheridan); and Paul in a standoff with his dope-smoking roommate for the affections of poor-little-rich girl Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes).

But in the end, it's Elena (Joan Allen) who tops them all, forcing Ben into a post-cocktail-party spouse swap which is as embarrassing to the audience as it is to her husband. Never have so many looked so pathetic for so little.

Given the subject matter of The Ice Storm, director Ang Lee could easily have turned it into an X-rated organ recital. Instead, Lee, director of Sense & Sensibility and The Wedding Banquet, reveals deep veins of feeling in the most unlikely places. One look at Wendy's face when she's found under the covers with Jim tells you what she's really been looking for.

At the same time, Lee makes the most of the external ice storm which descends upon New Canaan, carving delicate images of a world turned to glass -- one which quickly shatters when the members of both families forget to look out for one another.

Part Greek tragedy, part Wonder Years, The Ice Storm provides a sobering look at an unsober time, a frosted window to the past that says much about how we live in the present.

It's not always a pretty picture, but it's one that's awful hard not to look at.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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