Ang Lee's The Ice Storm is like a Polaroid snapshot of a time in America where society found itself in limbo, where the innocence of the early sixties, replaced by the cultural rebellion of the late sixties, now faded away under the dishonesty of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. It is 1973, and Americans are lost, just coming out of a haze of marijuana smoke and sexual revolution to find that the country no longer belongs to them. All of the revolutionary aspects of a country at odds with itself were still trickling down throughout social spheres in 1973, and the malaise had reached the upper class yuppie world of New Canaan, Connecticut, on display here in Ang Lee's film. The wealthy and bored in this world still spend their time reading important books, exploring sexual ambiguity, drinking, and drugs, and live a life of quiet desperation. The Ice Storm feeds off impending doom, but does so with a little bit of humour. Just enough to soften the blow.
The film focuses on a group of friends and neighbors in New Canaan, all with their own secret lives and desires. Bob (Kevin Kline) is married to Elena (Joan Allen), but having an affair with their friend, Janey (Sigourney Weaver), whose husband is often out of town on business. Bob and Elena's marriage is crumbling, and Bob is too aloof or unconcerned to pay any mind. Elena is having her own internal struggles, as evidenced by her kleptomania in one scene at a drug store. They have two children, Paul (Tobey Maguire) and Wendy (Christina Ricci), neither of whom have a firm grasp on their own sexual feelings. Paul desperately yearns for the attention of a classmate, and Wendy plays mind games with the two sons of Janey and her husband, Sandy. There is a definite symmetry between the adolescent attitudes of the parents and the sexual exploits of the children. It's as if these kids see their parents, and understand things will never work themselves out in their own life.
Taking place over Thanksgiving break, The Ice Storm also shows how this upper crust struggles to stay hip. A storm is moving in overnight, which doesn't stop one of the yuppies from hosting a "key party," where all of the couples dump their car keys into a bowl and at the end of the night, whichever set the wives select, that is who they go home with. The scene is unsettling as the women fumble around among themselves before one patron decides to go first. As the keys are selected, the smiles are forced and the tension in the room builds. Of course, Bob wants Janey to be sure and grab his keys, but when she doesn't he cannot take it. The moment is embarrassing for Bob, who is generally an embarrassing person to begin with, and eventually the party leaves only two members: Elena and Janey's husband, Sandy.
Meanwhile the children of these families are left to their own devices and their own stunted sexual growth. A tragedy occurs, but nobody is around to see it happen. That doesn't change the affect it has on the members of the family. All the while there is Richard Nixon, speaking on the television in the background, steadily the topic of conversation, and even appearing as a latex mask on one of the characters in an amusingly awkward exchange. Nixon defines these characters, whose idea of American life has been stripped away from them by the criminal activities of the President. All of these people are lost, and some are searching harder than others to fill a void they have in their life.
As downtrodden as the picture may sound, there are genuinely amusing moments in The Ice Storm. A great deal of the humor comes from the look of the film, plain and simple. The garish, tacky, mismatched attire only serves as an extension of the muddled and confused minds of these characters. In one particularly funny scene, Sandy comes home to find his wife reading Albert Camus on their bed, and when he sits down we discover it is, of course, a water bed, and the ripples send Janey almost out onto the floor. Small moments like this are littered throughout the screenplay, adapted from the 1994 novel by Rick Moody. The Ice Storm was Ang Lee's first purely American film dealing with American families, and the themes set in place here can be seen in all of Lee's works (yes, even in the familial strife in his obtuse telling of Hulk). This is a film rich in texture, filled to the brim with magnificent performances, and despite its definitive place in American history, the mood and themes remain all too timeless.
NOTE: The Ice Storm is finally out in a glorious bluray Critereon Edition with an in-depth essay and loads of interesting bonus features.