"The Ice Storm" stands in perfect contemplative counterpoint to the fervid energy of "Boogie Nights," but just because it's the quieter cousin by no means lessens its wallop. Rather than surface brilliance and raw energy, its power lies in the precise calibration of its emotional elements, which accumulate almost imperceptibly into a shattering and unforgettable whole.
"The Ice Storm," which director Ang Lee adapted from the Rick Moody novel, transpires over Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, when Nixon's betrayal of the country is being re-enacted in miniature in at least two houses in New Canaan, Conn.
At large in Cheever country and swimming in the backwash of the sexual revolution, Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) seems to doff his regulation-gray Burberry only to bed the neighbor, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), whose feminine mystique is a tangle of macrame, mascara and a biting sexual anger. Janey's husband (Jamey Sheridan) floats in the background, an ineffectual, if economically reliable, ghost.
To keep from acknowledging Ben's indiscretions, his wife, Elena (Joan Allen), shoplifts and takes solace in passing intellectual fads. "The Ice Storm" reminds us that, in addition to the rest of its considerable charms, the 1970s were the last time the Upanishads and "I'm O.K., You're O.K." carried the same theological weight.
It's a cliche that the couples' adolescent children are far more aware than their parents: While Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) plans an assignation with a prep school classmate in Manhattan, his ethereal, sexually knowing sister Wendy (Christina Ricci) experiments at seducing both Carver boys, played by Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd. When Janey catches Wendy with one of her sons, she sputters out garbled references to bodies as temples and Samoan rites of passage. As Janey babbles, the young girl's shell of impassivity simply thickens all the more.
But the cliche works in this case because the young actors of "The Ice Storm" infuse Moody's interior drama with surprising strength and sophistication.
There are times when "The Ice Storm" flirts with being merely kitschy. Sure, there's a cynical kick to looking back on the Op-Art and the wide ties and Nixon (this might be the only movie ever made to cast him as a foreplay device), and a wife-swapping party has a sort of Rabbit Angstromish winsomeness. But
references to Styrofoam peanuts and semiconductors are too cute by half.
And the device of the titular storm, which changes the lives of the characters irrevocably, threatens to slide beyond metaphor and onto the thin ice of the contrived.
But Lee, who proved such an astute observer of manners in "The Wedding Banquet" and "Sense and Sensibility," never once lets "The Ice Storm" fishtail off course. Whenever it threatens to be just one thing -- period piece, melodrama, coming-of-age story -- he wisely pulls the camera back and allows filmgoers to meditate on a drab landscape or a lonely Bauhaus box in the woods.
Lee delivers the film's black and white message -- that the alienation of the white upper classes can be as fatal as any other socio-economic condition -- with chiaroscuro delicacy.
Its restraint and rhythmic sense, echoed in a poetically spare score by composer Mychael Danna, give "The Ice Storm" its power, and Lee's approach makes the simple image of a young boy coming off a train an unexpectedly devastating moment. That's when we know what Lee knew all along: that the swamp PTC of human feelings under the veneer of cool wasn't so deeply submerged after all.
'The Ice Storm'
Starring Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen
Directed by Ang Lee
Released by Fox Searchlight
Rated R (sexuality and drug use, including scenes involving children, and language)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 10/31/97