Finally. I knew if I persevered I would see a movie. You know, one with
an arc, a plot, dialogue worth listening to and a variety of multi-dimensional
characters. Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" has redeemed my faith.
It's Thanksgiving week, 1973, and the Hood family of New Canaan, Ct. look
like they have done everything right and been aptly rewarded. Ben (Kevin
Kline) and his wife Elena (Joan Allen) seem to have provided all the external
necessities of affluence for their 14-year-old daughter Wendy (Christina
Ricci) and 16-year-old Paul (Tobey Maguire) who is coming home from prep
school for the holiday.
Within minutes of the opening credits, the dysfunctional hollowness of their
lives is established: Ben is sleeping with his neighbor's wife Janey (Sigourney
Weaver) and flailing to make sense of the office politics going on around
him or at least improve his golf game; Paul is smoking dope and trying desperately
to lose his virginity; Elena is looking for meaning in Jonathan Livingston
Seagull and Human Sexual Response and Wendy rants that the Watergate story
that unwinds on the news in the background will pull the country into anarchy
and denies to her friends that she has been giving blow jobs to Mikey (Elijah
Wood), the boy next door, but we know better.
As he did in "The Wedding Banquet," "Eat, Drink Man Woman"
and "Sense and Sensibility," Ang Lee gives us characters we care
about. In a very different time and setting than his previous works, the
common thread is the push and pull of society on the character's actions.
Sigourney Weaver and Joan Allen are casted to type, playing with and against
each other. Weaver is perfectly coifed and dressed as the epitome of the
1973 bored-to-the-core woman with no patience left for her children, her
husband or her lover. Allen is the consummate repressed, silently suffering
wife, finding no relief in religion, couples therapy or books, yet in this
role we have a sense she might explode at any minute. Kline pulls off the
befuddled husband, lover and father who wants so desperately to communicate,
but doesn't begin to know how.
Elijah Wood has moments of brilliance, somehow simultaneously appearing
vacant and wise, but it is Christina Ricci who steals the shows as the confident
woman-child, longing for someone she cannot control, someone she can respect.
Miraculously, it seems natural for her to put on a Nixon mask before turning
to Elijah Wood to say, very matter of factly, "I'll touch it, but that's
all." They don't get much farther than him pulling his pants down when
a slightly drunken Kevin Kline, who has been upstairs waiting for his lover
Sigourney Weaver, finds his young daughter under Elijah Wood.
Kline's initial tone is stern, but as they walk home together he tells Ricci
he "really doesn't care." Although it is clear he cares passionately,
he is unable to articulate his fears and concerns. Instead, he asks if her
feet are cold and carries her in his arms. With her legs wrapped around
her father's back as if she were once again two years old, her desperation
to be reassured and protected radiates from their embrace and her eyes.
It is the eyes of Christina Ricci that in this scene are so vulnerable and
in others so challenging that tell us more than any dialogue could. When
she stares down the clerk at the pharmacy after shoplifting or when she
smokes so confidently with her schoolmates, she is so aware of her power
and so desperate to be called on it.
James Schmaus's screenplay, adapted from Rick Moody's novel, provides dozens
of moments that accentuate the ennui of the parents and the unfulfilled
desires of the young people such as when the camera becomes Mikey's younger
brother's eyes and closes in on the goose bumps of Ricci's bare back side
while she plays in the school band. A glimpse of Sigourney Weaver lying
in a fetal position alone on her waterbed says more about her loneliness
than any words could. And Ang Lee refreshingly respects his audience enough
to just give us just that glimpse and no more. It says it all and now we
can move on.
The beginning narrative was obviously tacked on -- as almost all are --
in some last minute feeling that more needed to be explained. It wasn't.
And there are a few continuity problems. But in running a hair less than
two hours, The Ice Storm tells its story completely, fleshes out its characters
with depth and caring and, in the final scene, leaves the audience with
a glimmer of hope that the Hoods will find the power and ability to at last
communicate with each other.
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