"Being called a 'director' gives you a feeling of power... but in truth, we don't have any real power. All we do is select ingredients during the shooting and put them together during the editing. Deep down, a director is just a cook."
- Ang Lee
Director Ang Lee left his native Taiwan in 1978 to make his home in the United States, where he finished a Masters of Fine Arts in directing at New York University. From there, he jumped back and forth between his homeland and his adopted home to direct several critically-acclaimed independent films-- 1992's "Pushing Hands", and the two top-grossing Asian films, "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" from 1993 and 1994. In 1996, finally receiving recognition for his efforts, he helmed Emma Thompson's $15 million Jane Austen adaptation, "Sense and Sensibility". Now, in 1997, comes his latest film, "The Ice Storm", based on the novel by Rick Moody.
You're boring me. I have a husband. I don't need another.
It is Thanksgiving week in 1973, in the bleak suburban hell of New Canaan, Connecticut. Richard Nixon is about to be booted out of office over the Watergate scandal, the war in Vietnam is not going well, and disillusionment is everywhere. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Hood and Carver households. Both the parents and the children seek escape from the blandness of their existence with the tools at their disposal: drugs, sex, and deception. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is having an affair with his next-door neighbor, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). Elena Hood (Joan Allen, last seen in "Face/Off") is the frigid wife who has a penchant for shoplifting at the local drug store. The oldest Hood child, Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) is experimenting with drugs and lusting after one of his classmates. Jim's younger sister, Wendy (Christina Ricci, in her most substantial role in years), is a smart-alecky, politically-minded 14-year old who is exploring sexuality with the two Carver children, Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy. The relationships in the two dysfunctional families are strained, with each member hiding behind pretense in their dealings with each other. One night, the air over the eastern seaboard suddenly turns cold, and a rain storm coats every exposed surface with a glaze of ice. It is under these circumstances that the characters must confront their weaknesses and attempt to find peace despite them.
Sometimes the shepherd needs the comfort of the sheep.
I'm going to try hard not to understand the implications of that!
If this drama sounds flat and not particularly interesting, that's because it is. TIS was not a particularly striking film, with the same consistent joyless tone throughout, even through the emotional highs and lows of the story. Most of the narrative seemed to wander aimlessly, and when something resembling a resolution actually occurred, the pay-off seemed to be lacking of any emotional resonance. Though the melodramatic melancholy was injected with the occasional dose of levity, there was too little to sustain any interest in the otherwise uninspiring dialogue. Part of the blame can be placed on the characters, which were overall unsympathetic and uninteresting, save for Wendy, who breathed some life into the dialogue with her left-wing observations.
If there's anything good I can say about TIS is for the attention to detail in the production design. They must have raided every basement and garage sale to recreate the 'look' of the early Seventies-- the goofy polyester fashions, the whimsical hairdo's, and the trashy interior design. Even the television commercials and shows in the background and some of the props used are authentic, bringing back memories of an era I'd rather not remember.
I have been a long-time fan of Ang Lee's work, and I really wanted to enjoy this film. But "The Ice Storm" was the darkest and gloomiest film in Lee's portfolio, a remarkable departure from the upbeat sensibility of his previous work. Though the direction of the material is up to Lee's standards, the material he is working with is not.