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Chilling Truths

The ongoing anxieties and agonies of the American family don't make for a pretty picture. Divorce and disorder have replaced macaroni and cheese as the domestic commonplace, but most people can give little credence to either the self-righteous prescriptions of the fundamentalist right or the ecstatic bleatings of the new-agers to clean up their act. Against the odds, both groups seem to interpret love itself as one more thing on the political agenda--like farm subsidies or the line-item veto.

The best most of us seem able to do, as parents and children, is to muddle on with each other, hoping to control damages we scarcely seem aware of.

In The Ice Storm, directed by Ang Lee from a book by the impressive (and aptly named) young novelist Rick Moody, we run afoul of the same sort of prosperous white suburbanites whose disturbances were earlier explored by writers like John Updike and John Cheever. Moody's story, and the film's, is set in the bedroom community of New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1973--the time when Nixon was waffling about the misdeeds of Watergate, "couples therapy" was all the rage and a generation of children, emotionally abandoned by their parents and hypnotized by the boob tube, was beginning to wonder when their lives would start. But for polyester, a higher incidence of smoking and a pre-AIDS taste for mate-swapping among the assembled liberal-arts graduates, the dark traumas we encounter here could be last Monday's news--or tomorrow's. Teenage sex, adult infidelities and general disintegration are the orders of the day and signposts on the road to tragedy. It's the very familiarity of the two traumatized families we meet that gives The Ice Storm its sting, along with the sense that nothing much has changed with the passage of time.

Is this an exaggerated view of our social derangement? We should probably ask ourselves that.

The parties to this terrifying soap opera include Ben Hood (a scarily effective Kevin Kline), a bewildered husband and father who's conducting a fruitless affair with his acid-tongued next-door neighbor, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver); Ben's weary, unhinged wife, Elena (Joan Allen); Janey's thickheaded husband, Jim (Jamey Sheridan); and the half-dozen children of both clans, whose searches for identity and warmth in a world of chill disconnections take desperate forms--drugs, incoherent sex, fits of rage. The Almighty, too, is out on the ragged edge: The local minister (Michael Cumpsty) is a mealymouthed creep with Prince Valiant locks who doubles as a second-rate seducer.

One measure of the communication gulf at the heart of the story:
"I'm back," hapless Jim Carver calls out as he looks into the bedroom of his two astonished sons.

"You were gone?" one boy asks.
This is neither Homer Simpson nor Father Knows Best. What we have here is active neglect perpetrated by people who have always considered themselves upright, decent and caring.

Moody has his axes to grind. By his early twenties, he was disturbed, alcoholic and locked in an asylum. He's since sobered and straightened up, he says. And of the young American fictioneers at work today, he may be the one with the clearest, least self-pitying sense of sheer dread--at least the sort of dread that afflicts WASPdom but conceals itself behind the well-trimmed hedge or the high wall.

This is the atmosphere in which fourteen-year-old Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) can one moment give a tortured trombone recital to her bored parents and in the next seek sex with the boy next door--in the same sterile white box of a house where her Dad is doing the same thing. It's the atmosphere where little Sandy Carver (Adam Hann-Byrd), caught between boyhood and adolescence, doesn't know why he's blowing up all his toys with firecrackers or where he goes from here. It's the atmosphere in which sixteen-year-old Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire), en route home from prep school for what will be an ice-bound Thanksgiving holiday, can peer into the pages of an adventure comic book and come away with the notion that his family is "anti-matter." His only comfort seems to be the familiar voice of the train conductor announcing the stops: Somehow, he's more Dad than Dad is.

Lee, the Taiwanese director who moved to the United States in 1978, charmed audiences here with The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, sly, detailed dramas buoyed up by easy grace and ennobled by his feel for Oriental family life. Surprisingly, he joined the Jane Austen craze two years ago with his fluent adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Lee seemed immediately at home in the English countryside, and he seems no less so in the emotionally bleak suburb of The Ice Storm. This confident filmmaker moves easily into the pathetic Seventies cocktail party at which the Carvers and the Hoods sunder the last shreds of their dignity, in the suburban rec rooms and kitchens where the fabric of life is falling apart, and on the icy back road where their whole world comes to grief.

Lee, screenwriter James Schamus and the superb cast (which also includes young Elijah Wood as the pivotal Mikey Carver) ably preserve the somber, elegiac yet frequently witty tone of Moody's work, if not (difficult task) the elegance of his prose. They, and the movie, accomplish something else, too: In the ruins of what was once family life, they find a glint of hope, the faint possibility that the human soul can survive deprivation and hard, unexpected trial. In these times, that may be the best any of us can hope for.

The Ice Storm.
Screenplay by James Schamus, from a novel by Rick Moody. Directed by Ang Lee. With Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Elijah Wood, Christina Ricci and Sigourney Weaver.

 
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