Ice Storm, The: Criterion Collection

Celebrating the film’s tenth anniversary, the two-disc Criterion Collection DVD (March 14, 2008) contains interesting and even gossipy commentary from director Ang Lee, who at one point describes his suburban satire as “a disaster movie, not unlike Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Dividing critics, “Ice Storm” was a commercial failure, though the cast members, in new interviews, indicate the significance of the film’s subtext. Elijah Wood, who plays one of the confused kids in his pre-“Lord of the Rings” career, says: “It’s one of those films that lingers with you and sits with you and is uncomfortable.” See for yourself. I recommend that you see it in a double bill with Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning “American Beauty,” made two years later.

Film Review

Reflecting the zeitgeist of cynical portraits of dysfunctional families, Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” (1997) is based on Ron Moody’s novel, adapted to the screen by Good Machine’s head and Lee’s collaborator James Schamus.

Set in 1973, in upper-middle class New Canaan, Connecticut, it 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 next-door neighbor Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). 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 residents of New Canaan have achieved their suburban American Dream, but the ‘burbs are 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 sterile way in which the New Canaanites revel in their “hipness.”

Entrapped in an unfulfilling marriage, Elena Hood (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 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 attraction. When Ben complains about his life, Janey coolly says, “You’re boring me, Ben. I’m not your wife,” 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 changes into a serious drama–underlying the inevitably tragic results of irresponsible behavior. Lee’s earlier work always 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 a budget of $16 million, “The Ice Storm” divided critics and didn’t fulfill commercial expectations. Earlier, it was touted an Oscar contender since it was a follow-up to Lee’s better and more successful “Sense and Sensibility,” which was nominated for Oscars.

The other suburban film that season, the similarly-themed “The Myth of Fingerprints,” which premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival, also failed to attract audiences. Written and directed by Bart Freundlich, this solid drama revolves around a dysfunctional New England WASP family over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend.