Film Scouts Reviews

"The Ice Storm"

by Cari Beauchamp

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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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