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The Ice Storm

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Ice Storm

Starring: Kevin Kline, Joan Allen
Director: Ang Lee
Rated: R
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: September 1997
Genre: Drama


*Also starring: Courtney Peldon, Henry Czerny, Adam Hann-Byrd, David Krumholtz, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Jamey Sheridan, Elijah Wood, Sigourney Weaver



Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

Ice storms are magnificent and dangerous. The outdoor world becomes a gallery of ominous wonders, filled with crystalline sculptures that glisten in the winter light. Of course, the ice creates great hazards along with the beauty. Tree limbs and power lines grow heavy and snap under the extra weight, while surface areas become slick and treacherous. Although ice storms are alluring, most people choose to stay inside. Those who elect to venture out do so with great caution.

But not the characters in "The Ice Storm." Adults hop in their cars to go for a drive on the slippery roads, while children venture forth to explore. One boy actually maneuvers his way onto a frozen diving board, where he proceeds to bounce up and down over the concrete surface of an empty swimming pool. Why? Why does a group of apparently intelligent people repeatedly engage in self-destructive behavior?

"The Ice Storm" succeeds because director Ang Lee doesn't tell us why. Set in an affluent suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut in 1973, against the backdrop of Watergate and the remnants of the 60s cultural revolution, the angst-filled characters play out their lives without explanation. To paraphrase Lisa Simpson, they are enigmas, wrapped in riddles, wearing polyester.

Lee, director of "Sense and Sensibility" and the wonderful "Eat Drink Man Woman," uses the tacky fashions of the early 70s to establish the era, but generally avoids playing the garish trappings for comedy. His stance is that of an observer, maintaining almost as much emotional distance as his characters keep between each another. He uses a beautifully staged ice storm as a metaphor, but leaves it to the viewer to determine exactly what aspect of human behavior the metaphor is addressing. The result is disquieting and compelling; images of these foolish people linger long after the movie is over.

The story, based on Rick Moody's 1994 novel, focuses on the Carvers and the Hoods, upscale New Canaan families who frequently travel the wooded path between their houses. Benjamin Hood (Kevin Kline) is the bed-mate of Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) in a loveless affair. Meanwhile, his wife Elena (Joan Allen) trudges through her duties, brimming with hostility but playing the role of silent martyr. Jim, Janey's husband, is a preoccupied type who makes little impact on his family. When he returns from one of his frequent business trips and cheerfully tells his boys "I'm back," one of them replies "You were gone?"

As the tension builds between the adults, their children keep busy aping their parent's behavior. When not glued to her television watching the Watergate proceedings or tossing caustic remarks at her father, Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) pursues her sexual curiosity with both of the Carver boys; moody, analytical Mike (Elijah Wood) and his little brother Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd,) a painfully shy kid who spends his spare moments blowing up his toys. Wendy's brother Paul (Tobey Maguire) comes home from prep school for Thanksgiving, but his focus is back at school, where he vies with his roommate for the attention of a beautiful young woman.

With the Carvers and the Hoods, it all keeps coming back to sex. The New Canaan suburbanites have read about the Sexual Revolution and are determined to keep up with fashion. Everything builds to a pivotal scene involving a Key Party, where the men drop their car keys in a bowl. At the end of the evening, the wives are to fish keys from the bowl and go home with whoever owns them. The camera captures all of the awkwardness of the hapless partygoers, downing large amounts of liquor and bantering nervously as they strain to be on the cutting edge of sexual behavior.

Lee is adept at creating a vivid sense of place, using numerous establishing and tracking shots to make the wistful, forlorn atmosphere of New Canaan come alive. When Elena looks up from a sidewalk book sale and sees her daughter riding her bike down the street, you can almost feel the crispness of the autumn air. Watching her daughter, Elena envies Wendy's freedom and playfulness, unaware that the young girl isn't feeling anything of the kind.

That sort of emotional misunderstanding is common in "The Ice Storm." The uniformly strong cast conveys the discomfort the characters feel with themselves and each other. Trapped in some perceived code of behavior, these people desperately want to relate to each other openly and honestly, but don't have a clue how to do it, so they make impulsive, foolish gestures. They know the danger inherent in an ice storm, but can't resist the beauty, so they venture out onto the slick surfaces anyway. And they fall.

Copyright 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott

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