Reflecting the zeitgeist of cynical portraits of dysfunctional families, Ang Lee's “The Ice Storm” is based on Ron Moody's novel, adapted to the screen by Good Machine's James Schamus.
Set in 1973, in the upper-middle class town of New Canaan, Connecticut, the film depicts adulterous parents and jaded teenagers. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline), a commuter living in New Canaan, has achieved everything: a beautiful house, a seemingly happy marriage, two precocious kids, and even an affair with his next-door neighbor Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver).
The residents of New Canaan have seemingly fulfilled their suburban American Dream. But moral vacuum dominates New Canaan, just as it does the rest of the country. The pall of the Watergate scandal is in the background, with Nixon continually proclaiming his innocence on TV.
The 'burbs are now infiltrated with late 1960s liberal notions of "free love" and "sexual revolution." "Key parties," a form of wife-swapping in which couples are randomly paired by drawing car keys from a bowl, are one way in which the New Canaanites revel in their "hipness."
Entrapped in an unfulfilling marriage, Ben’s spouse Elena (Joan Allen) is a product of a repressed generation, conditioned to become the loyal wife-mother. Elena is aware of the changing attitudes about women, but she is clueless as what to do about it.
There's no real communication in the Hood home; dinner conversations are truncated and awkward. Even Ben's affair with Janey feels halfhearted, based on habitude and the charm of secrecy rather than real physical attraction. While in bed, and Ben endlessly complains about his life, Janey says coolly and abruptly, "You're boring me, Ben. I'm not your wife." She then gets up and leaves in mid-tryst.
The children follow in their parents' footsteps, emulating their aimless, disenchanted lives. The eldest Hood, Paul (Tobey Maguire) seems less damaged by changes in his parents' world, but his sexual frustrations and insecurities mirror those of his father, even as they are typical of boys his age. Pubescent Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) is bewildered by her body's biological changes, but smart enough to know that she can manipulate boys with it, flirting with two of the Carver brothers.
“The Ice Storm” begins as a light gentle satire, but then changes into a serious drama–underlying the inevitably tragic results of irresponsible behavior.
Lee's earlier work in his Taiwanese films featured a strong paternal character, but in “The Ice Storm,” the adults are just as confused and lost as their children. Without a moral center, the movie drifts along until it reaches its predictably sad conclusion.
The tonal shift, as Andy Klein noted, is a calculated device, to lend the work more resonance, though in it achieves the opposite effect, turning the movie into a conventional family melodrama.
With above-average (for such fare) budget of $16 million, “The Ice Storm” didn't fulfill commercial expectations and divided film critics.
Nor did the similarly-themed, "The Myth of Fingerprints," which was released the same year. Written and directed by Bart Freundlich, this solid drama revolves around a dysfunctional New England WASP family over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend.
As Todd McCarthy noted in his Variety review, with middlebrow seriousness, "Myth of the Fingerprints" operates within a narrow emotional range that provides little surprise or excitement. Essentially high-toned television fare, it relies on the familiar theatrical format of a splintered family reuniting for a holiday gathering that inevitably results in accentuation of frustrations and resentments, with the unveiling of skeletons in closets and details of past unsavory actions.