Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee has carved out a place for himself as our leading director of comedies of manners. His first three films -- Pushing Hands (1991), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) -- combined humor with touches of pathos while shedding light on modern Chinese and Chinese-American family conflicts.
The announcement that he would direct Emma Thompson's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (1995) at first seemed odd: Surely a Jane Austen film required a British director or, at the very least, a faux Brit like James Ivory. But, on a moment's reflection, it was clear that the incongruity was only on the surface; in fact, Lee's upbringing in a highly ritualized society gave him a better feel for Austen's period than any British director of his age, raised in a vastly changed U.K., could have possessed. The result was the most successful, and arguably the best, of the recent mini-flood of Austen films.
It also propelled Lee into the mainstream. His first project since his Oscar nomination for Sense and Sensibility is an adaptation of Rick Moody's novel The Ice Storm, about life in suburban Connecticut in 1973. While it reaffirms Lee's touch for gentle satire and distilled social insight, it also feels just slightly weaker than his last two projects.
Kevin Kline stars as Ben Hood, an upper-middle-class commuter working in New York and living in New Canaan. Ben appears to have achieved everything to which his class aspires: He has a beautiful house in a nearly rural suburb, an allegedly happy marriage, two precocious kids and a clandestine affair with next-door neighbor Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver).
But life in New Canaan seems to exist in some sort of moral vacuum. That the entire country has lost its bearings is suggested by repeated TV clips in the background of Nixon, then in the midst of Watergate, unconvincingly proclaiming his innocence. The adults in this crowd would have gone to high school and college in the repressed milieu of the late '40s and '50s. They've achieved their suburban American Dream and have taken on the ill-fitting trappings of "hipness." The 'burbs have been infiltrated by shallow, hall-of-mirrors versions of the upheavals of the late '60s. The liberating notions of "free love" and the "sexual revolution" have become institutionalized wife-swapping, in the form of "key parties" -- a tawdry, hypergonadic variation on Spin the Bottle, wherein the male guests drop their car keys into a bowl, to be randomly chosen by the women. (And so to bed.)
The Hoods' marriage isn't tragically awful; its flaws are too pathetic for that. Elena Hood (Joan Allen) grew up when aspirations to anything more than wife- and motherhood were relatively rare and even suspect. Unlike her predecessors, whose hopes were stomped on by a monolithic cultural prejudice, Elena is surrounded by changing attitudes about women's "proper" roles, but not the tools to deal with them.
It's clear that the Hoods have virtually no real communication. And even Ben's affair with Janey feels halfhearted, almost pro forma. Janey isn't much of an alternative to Elena -- a little prettier, a little more self-possessed, maybe -- but her fling with Ben is based more on its forbidden quality than on any inherent attraction.
All of this foolishness would be sheerly comical except that these people all have kids who are learning by their parents' aimless examples. As the eldest of the Hood and Carver children, Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) seems less damaged by the relatively recent changes in his parents' world. While his insecurities and inadequacies mirror those of his dad -- both are dogged by conniving, self-confident usurpers -- his teenage sexual frustrations would have been no different had he been born seven years earlier. (I say this with some authority, as I was born seven years earlier; and boy, do I remember this kid's life.)
But 14-year-old Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) is in worse straits. She doesn't know precisely what to do with her new body, but she's precocious and observant enough to know that it's a source of power and a tool for manipulation. She has flirtations with both of the Carver boys, 14-year-old Mikey (Elijah Wood) and the slightly younger (and considerably weirder) Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd).
At some points, the tone of The Ice Storm resembles The Serial, Cyra MacFadden's satire of life in Marin County during the same period. But Lee is shooting for something more serious -- the inevitable, tragic result of his characters' tacky behavior.
It's during the shift to seriousness that The Ice Storm makes its missteps. The intrusion of tragedy, while altogether believable, still seems like a device, a calculated tug at the heartstrings. It is, in short, a once-effective ploy that now feels like a cliche. A near-miss might have been more effective.
For what it's worth, Lee can't be accused of pulling his tone change out of nowhere. The tragic events are abundantly well set up; even more cleverly, the final act drips with foreboding, suggesting so many possible tragedies that the odds favor at least one of them coming to pass.
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The film suffers somewhat from one other problem. Lee has jokingly referred to his first three films as the Father Knows Best trilogy, because all were anchored around a paternal character played by Sihung Lung. While Lung's personae were always at least partial causes of the films' conflicts, he was still a basically strong, admirable sort.
The Ice Storm has no such anchor. All the adults are at sea; they are at best ineffectual. And most of the kids are equally lost souls. (In a running gag, the town's hip minister seems just as morally lost as the rest.) Only Paul, who narrates the story, comes through relatively unscathed, and he inhabits a different world than the rest of the characters: His role is so subsidiary and tangential to the main action that his appearance in the final scenes is almost jarring.
The Ice Storm.
Directed by Ang Lee. With Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood and Henry Czerny.