Saturday, November 12, 2011

Overlooked Gems #13: The Ice Storm

Grade: 96 (A)

The Ice Storm’s failure in theatres isn’t exactly a surprise. Ang Lee’s American debut, Sense and Sensibility, was a warm-hearted, lushly cinematic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, beloved by critics, couples, and little old ladies alike. Lee had wanted to make The Ice Storm first, but the success of S&S gave him free reign to adapt Rick Moody’s novel. But the film might not have been what audiences expected: Lee has called The Ice Storm his “fuck you” film for a reason. It’s a prickly, chilly (forgive the pun) work, full of anger, frustration, and dysfunction. Critics loved the film, and filmmaker Brian De Palma called it his favorite film in recent memory, but Fox Searchlight’s mishandling of the film with poor marketing (highlighted by a terrible, misleading feel-good trailer) killed its box office potential. But you can’t keep a great movie down, and The Ice Storm has enjoyed well-deserved second-life on DVD and video (bolstered by the great Criterion DVD). The film still isn’t as widely known as Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Brokeback Mountain, however, and so it qualifies as an Overlooked Gem.

The Ice Storm revolves around two suburban Connecticut families in November of 1973: the Hoods, comprised of father Ben (Kevin Kline), mother Elena (Joan Allen), 16-year-old Paul (Tobey Maguire), and 14-year-old Wendy (Christina Ricci); and the Carvers, including Jim (Jamey Sheridan), Janey (Sigourney Weaver), 14-year-old Mikey (Elijah Wood), and 12-year-old Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Ben drinks too much and has an affair with Janey. Elena senses trouble in her marriage and acts out impulsively. The highly intelligent Paul goes to boarding school, experiments with pot, and lusts for ditzy schoolmate Libbets (Katie Holmes). Wendy drinks, challenges authority, and rants about Nixon and the privileged nature of suburban whites. Wendy experiments sexually with the weird Mikey. Sandy acts out violently and lusts for Wendy. Wendy notices and starts experimenting with Sandy. Jim is so absent in his house that he returns from a trip before anyone notices he was gone in the first place. But it’s not as if the other parents have any idea how to talk to their kids anyway. All in all, not exactly the most normal of groups.

The Ice Storm boasts one of the best casts of 90s films: the adults (Kline, Allen, Weaver) give some of their finest performances, and the children (Wood, Hann-Byrd, Ricci, a never better Maguire) match them. These characters inhabit a world where the adults are just as lost and confused as their children. The film is at a turning point in American history: Watergate is breaking out, the 60s are dead, and the world is at an odd crossroads between the freeness of the late 60s and the button-down 80s (simplifications, perhaps, but effective). The adults discuss the porn movie Deep Throat and drink freely. The kids, mimicking their parents, use drugs and sex as a way of trying to grow up. The adults scold their children for their thoughtless actions, but they’re even more irresponsible and ignorant of the fallout their actions will have.

Lee had originally envisioned a Billy Wilder-style black comedy in the style of The Apartment, but while traces of that vision remain, the film is often too profoundly sad for the laughter to be anything more than choked out. The gorgeous photography by Frederick Elmes and unconventional Mychael Danna score only highlight the downbeat mood. Several dramas in the late-90s looked at dysfunctional families and parents mistreating their children (Happiness, Magnolia, American Beauty), but few have such a heartbreaking sense of loss.

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