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Review: Passion served cold in 'The Ice Storm'

Weaver and Kline in 'The Ice Storm' October 14, 1997
Web posted at: 5:27 p.m. EDT (2127 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Ang Lee's new film, "The Ice Storm," starring (among others) Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Sigourney Weaver, is one of those movies that has Serious Work of Art written all over it, but the plot is driven by brooding, unenlightened characters who can't seem to see past their own noses. This is a highly intelligent, talented cast, and Lee, having directed "Eat Drink Man Woman" and "Sense and Sensibility," is no slouch either, but I kept being reminded of stuff like Woody Allen's "Interiors," a movie so single-mindedly concerned with being grim and despairing it finally becomes more amusing than "Manhattan Murder Mystery."

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"The Ice Storm" is a far better movie than "Interiors," but it never comes close to gelling into the enlightened vision it so obviously intends to be. We're in New Canaan, Connecticut, in the winter of 1973. Ben and Elena Hood (Kline and Allen) are a seemingly happy suburban couple with a seemingly happy couple of suburban kids (Christina Ricci and Toby Maguire, who give the best performances in the film). The son is coming home from college for Thanksgiving break as the story begins, and his arrival serves as the cue for a series of sexual hijinks by his parents and younger sister. The Hoods' next door neighbors are the Carvers (Weaver, who really should eat something, and Jamey Sheridan). The Carvers have two cute but kinda creepy teen-age sons (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd), both of whom are growing erotically concerned with the obviously blossoming Ricci.

Kline and Allen in 'The Ice Storm'

Mixed drinks, swimming pools, neighborhood parties, shag rugs, golf clubs ... these folks look like they have it "all," by 1973 standards anyway. So that must mean (especially in this Cheever-esque setting) that there's trouble in paradise. This is made abundantly clear in the first five minutes, during which screenwriter Rick Moody throws in not one, but two overt references to existentialism. Don't you see? These poor people are confused; they're in pain. They can't make their thoughts clear to each other. Their children hate them. They have miserable sex lives. They have polyester slacks that go "zzzzzip" and fall on the floor when they try to drape them over the back of a chair.

Kline and Weaver are having an affair, but, like everything else about the movie, it's so mannered there isn't any sense of happiness or release about it. Their post-coital conversations are gray, clinical, and unobservant. I'm sure this is the intention, but Kline's character in particular seems about as perceptive as a bucket of tar.

All of the characters are written less as individuals than as prototypes for a particular writerly notion. Kline is the over-worked, emasculated suburban male. Weaver is the sexy, predatory suburban female. Allen is the dedicated housewife who's uneasy with her approaching middle age and thus hankers for something more. To add to their anguish, Lee devises odd, truncated scenes that start to build up a little steam, but then cut away just when something of value might happen. It's filmmaking as coitus interruptus. In the middle of all of this, an ice storm hits New Canaan, freezing everything into a deathly stillness. THIS IS A METAPHOR, in case you're not paying attention.

The idea is that these people are not emotionally prepared to deal with the sexual revolution that they seem to think will free them from their chains, but one look at them could tell you that. (They're laboring under the assumption that it's not enough to be liked, you gotta be well-liked.) Everyone, with the exception of the solid Joan Allen, seems vaguely mean for no good reason. A mate-swapping party scene near the end of the film is memorable only for its casual cruelty.

For this reason, I felt that the only moments with any resonance to them involve Ricci as she attempts to seduce (to varying degrees of success) Wood and Hann-Byrd. These are kids, after all, so their incomprehension of the subtleties of the sexual act at least feels like the truth. There are a couple of very uncomfortable moments as Ricci plays doctor with the far less worldly Hann-Byrd (who is the now-medium-size star of Jodie Foster's "Little Man Tate"), but their fumbling is far more compelling than Kline and Weaver's prone ice sculpture routine.

The scene that sticks with me, though, is so bizarre I can't imagine what Lee was getting at. Wood and Ricci have decided to attempt an ill-advised mutual grope, but, before Wood climbs on top of her, Ricci puts on a plastic Richard Nixon mask. A teen-age boy trying desperately to perform intercourse on Richard Nixon must mean something other than what we're looking at, but an unemployed philosopher out there will have to write and explain it to me. Besides, it seems to me that this is where Lee missed a golden opportunity to say something truly illuminating about the 1970s. Wood should have been wearing a John Dean mask.

"The Ice Storm" is about uncomfortable sexual situations, so you get a lot of that, although there isn't any nudity. Parents should be aware that there's a lot of focus on adolescent sexuality. Plus, the kids raid the medicine cabinet at one point and gulp down Mom's prescription pain-killers. If your children are going to see this, come with them. Rated R. 112 minutes.

 
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