'The Ice Storm' captures 1970s suburban lust at its worst

by Matt Frucci | 11/24/97 6:00am

"The Ice Storm" is about a 1970s suburban family, but it is not "The Brady Bunch." It is about what we all know was prevalent between takes on the set of "The Brady Bunch:" partner swapping, sexual experimentation and giant bongs.

"The Ice Storm" is a deeply haunting portrait of an American family lost in an era of misguided hedonism and shallow relationships, coming to the disheartening conclusion that free love comes with a price.

It is 1973 in New Canaan, Connecticut and its middle class residents are struggling to find their place in the sexual revolution. No families are more confused then the Hood and Carver families. While the adults are having affairs and going to partner swapping parties, the children are having their own experiments in the basements.

It is hard to figure out who is more messed up, the children or their parents. Both are trying to do what the previous decade's culture told them was the fun thing to do, but they ultimately find it unsatisfying.

"The Ice Storm" is more than just the climactic storm which forces out all these issues, it is the underlying metaphor for the whole movie. These characters are cold, distant and nearly unthawable.

To make sure his point is clear, director Ang Lee ("Sense and Sensibility") loads on the stark imagery. The film is shot in dark, muted tones which emphasize the emptiness of the characters lives. The trees are all bare, waving in the cold breezes. The pools are empty, nothing but concrete shells.

But most of all, there is ice. Ice hangs from the trees, from the wind-chimes and clings to the windows. It coats the streets, the cars and even the characters. It is everywhere and sets the tone of the film.

Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) walks through the baron woods everyday to have an affair with the wickedly tempting Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). His relationship with her is just as bad as with his wife, Elena, played by Joan Allen.

But Kline plays Ben as such an unsuccessful optimist that he pretends everything is great on both sides, even if everything is falling apart.

He is equally unsuccessful with his children. He tries to be stern, and they ignore him. He tries to be friendly and gives terrible advice on issues such as sex, but they still ignore him.

His children are the product of his loveless marriage and the left-over spirit of the 1960s. They are cynical, angry and sexually curious. Their son, Paul, played with sweet awkwardness by Tobey Maguire, has no sex life despite how hard he tries for one. He is destined to be loved like an older brother by every pretty girl he falls for.

Their daughter Wendy, is played by Christina Ricci who turns her Wednesday Addams' ("The Addams Family") deadpan performance into something deeper and more frightening. She, at the age of 14, is the one who challenges all the boys to a game of "You show me yours and I'll show you mine."

She shoplifts, makes snide remarks and in one unsettling scene rolls around with the young Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood) while wearing a Nixon mask.

Joan Allen seems to have cornered the market in playing ignored wives. Again, in "The Ice Storm" she gives off the same Puritan coldness which worked so well in "The Crucible," and works again here. She knows that her husband is having an affair, but can barely say the words, let alone confront him. You can see the seething anger behind her poised facade.

The film moves through their unloving world with an eye for 1970s details. It picks up on everything from the awkward fashions and the avocado green kitchen cabinets to the Watergate discussions. It does not make fun of the 1970s or look back on them with nostalgia, it sees the decade as a very confusing time for Americans.

For the most part the film is mesmerizing. It has a coldly lyrical quality to it-- the ice seems to have come alive and overtaken its characters.

But it is the same iciness and distance that the characters hold for each other that the film holds for its characters. Because of this distance, the final tragedy which is supposed to thaw them out does not deliver with the full weight it could have. We never cared that much for them in the first place.

But ultimately "The Ice Storm" offers a different take on the 1970s-- that it was only fun on the surface.