"The Ice Storm"

Terrific acting warms up Ang Lee's frosty examination of 1970s America, 'The Ice Storm.'

Published October 17, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

IF YOU'RE A constant moviegoer, if you hang in there through all the bad movies, disappointments and blown opportunities, then sooner or later you've got to acknowledge the nobility of actors. I don't think "nobility" is too strong a word to use for the combination of guts, instinct and fearlessness that today's actors keep showing, given the quality of the writing or directing they're often working with. There are plenty of recent performances that seem miracles of a sort. At least once every couple of months, I find myself wondering how in the world the actor ever pulled it off.

You wouldn't think it would require a miracle for actors to be good in "The Ice Storm," since the source for Ang Lee's film (which opened the New York Film Festival last weekend), Rick Moody's 1994 novel, is one of the most beautifully written and emotionally satisfying books any young American novelist has produced recently. Set in New Canaan, Conn., in the course of a freak ice storm during Thanksgiving weekend, 1973, the novel follows the coming apart of two affluent suburban families. Moody may be working territory claimed long ago by Cheever and Updike, but he writes from a younger perspective. His teenagers are caught between the safety and privilege of suburban life and its constraints, at which they're just starting to chafe. They're the sort of kids you can still see any weekend at any Connecticut commuter rail station making their first tentative forays into the city.

Their parents are experiencing the dregs of the sexual revolution as middle-class fads -- desultory affairs and "key parties" where the men put their car keys in a bowl and are paired off at the end of the evening with the women who fish them out. Moody isn't the first young writer to tackle the stifling conformity of the suburbs. When he writes, "More of same -- or worse," he's only partly talking about the weather. But there's no contempt in his approach. Writing each section from the point of view of one character, he extends compassion and pity to each of them. This is the closest the suburban WASP novel has ever gotten to a feeling that could be called soulful.

But miracles are what the cast of "The Ice Storm" accomplish. It isn't that Lee's adaptation is a "bad" movie. Lee isn't a bad director. He might be more interesting if he were. He's careful, precise and bloodlessly competent. Everything about "The Ice Storm," from the cool green titles that seem to smoke and shift (as if seen through ice) to Mychael Danna's score of lonely, Asian-sounding wind instruments, is tasteful and distant. Moody's controlling metaphor of the ice storm, which stands for a world that no longer offers these characters the insulating protections they've come to rely on, has become a reductive, clichid symbol for the distance between them. Lee can't show two of the adolescent characters standing in a drained swimming pool and kissing without sending the camera discreetly skyward so they're small and alone amid a carpet of dead leaves.

Moody was writing from the inside; Lee doesn't get beyond displaying artifacts from a lost civilization. With its clips of Nixon press conferences, hardcover copies of "Watership Down," toe socks and "Montego Bay" on the soundtrack, the movie does call up the early '70s. But being an anthropologist isn't the same thing as being a dramatist, and I'm not convinced Lee understands the period. How could he? Lee's being Taiwanese didn't matter in his last picture, "Sense and Sensibility," because the early 1800s are distant to everyone, but the calamity of American life in 1973 is still fresh in the minds of anyone who lived through it. The exhausting, one-damn-thing-after-another tenor of American life, with the outrage of Watergate striking before the hangover from Vietnam wore off, was far removed from the cool, ascetic portentousness on display here. Lee destroys one of the book's most touching episodes, a clumsy sexual encounter between two of its teenage characters (played by Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood), by having Ricci don a rubber Nixon mask. Is this the "period mastery" critics are raving about? Maybe it is to those who haven't seen similar touches in dozens of lousy counterculture movies from the early '70s.

And despite all this, despite the jokey tone of James Schamus' screenplay, which occasionally nullifies the empathy Moody extended his characters, the cast is frequently amazing. Kevin Kline has the hardest time of it. His Benjamin, with his ascots and a rather desperate affair with his next-door neighbor, Janey (Sigourney Weaver), is the middle-aged suburbanite trying to pass as hipster. In many ways he's a ridiculous man, and at times, Kline seems to want to give into his flair for comedy. He resists it, though, and comes up with moments of unadorned emotion (like carrying his teenage daughter Wendy, played by Ricci, home through the woods) and confused dignity (his final scene) that are like the sudden bubbling up of warm springs. Weaver's role doesn't provide enough for her to do, but her whiplike bearing conveys an intimidating, impatient hauteur, and her line readings have the sort of dry sharpness (to Kline, post-coital: "You're boring me. I already have a husband.") that make you long to see her in high comedy.

Joan Allen's performances have sometimes suggested women like one of the maiden aunts Dylan Thomas described as "poised and brittle, afraid to break like faded cups and saucers." She's never gone further than she does as Elena, Benjamin's wife, a woman whose dead marriage has elicited in her a mixture of sexual hunger and sexual terror. There's both a neediness and a vindictiveness in the way Allen's Elena chooses to take part in the key party. In their brief scenes together, Allen and Jamey Sheridan (excellent as Weaver's discarded husband) achieve an awkward grace, the feel of two people searching for footing on terrain no longer recognizable to them.

Much of the weight of the movie rests on a quartet of young actors. Two of them, Tobey Maguire as Ben and Elena's son Paul, already a few steps removed from his family at private school, and Wood -- whose big eyes transmit a wounded bewilderment -- as Weaver and Sheridan's son Mikey, are merely faultless. Ricci (as Wendy) and Adam Hann-Byrd (as Mikey's younger brother Sandy) are superb. Hann-Byrd (he was the pint-sized genius in "Little Man Tate") is an unclassifiable young actor with a special talent for playing kids who've chosen to live largely inside their own heads. His Sandy has a fretful watchfulness, a hesitancy to move toward the adulthood the kids around him are grasping at. He never seems more of a little boy than when he's cuddling in bed next to Wendy. He's with the girl of his dreams, yet he's off somewhere in an enchanted land of his own imagining.

As an actress, the 17-year-old Ricci has grown far beyond the gothic-tot she played in the "Addams Family" movies. Ricci nails the cynicism that defined adolescents during Watergate, cynicism that wasn't jaded but raw, a reaction to unprecedented revelations about the corruption of power. And she does a good deal more. Ricci's Wendy captures the volatile combination of aggressiveness and uncertainty in a young woman trying to come to terms with her sexuality like no performance since Emily Lloyd's in "Wish You Were Here." It's a very different performance, quieter, harder and yet more vulnerable. When Ricci unflinchingly meets the eyes of an older woman who catches her shoplifting, she's displaying the unreachability that adolescents affect, which only makes the need emanating from her that much more heartbreaking.

I don't know when I've seen actors realize so many affecting moments in such a muddled conception. Lee's aestheticized approach is its own kind of ice storm. Undaunted, his cast forges ahead with the conviction of people who believe they could start a bonfire at the North Pole.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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