When you read about the ”cold” Northeastern WASPs in, say, John Cheever or John Updike — you know, adultery, repression, much gin-soaked guilt and despair — it’s easy to feel that you aren’t getting the whole story, that the authors have projected their minimalist misanthropy onto an entire culture. (They do to WASPs what Philip Roth does to Jews.) In The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s somberly seductive version of the 1994 Rick Moody novel, there are touches of that who-will-save-our-souls portentousness, but mostly the all-American angst feels fresh, almost pixilated. It arises from a giddy intersection of the characters themselves (a pair of upper-middle-class families in New Canaan, Conn.), the woodsy quietude of their suburban enclave, and the nervous transitional year of 1973, when the counterculture had lost its steam as a youth movement but, paradoxically, was just spreading its hedonistic tentacles into the staid reaches of ”normal” America.
Imagine The Brady Bunch scripted by Cheever, and you’ll have an idea of The Ice Storm‘s slightly discombobulated, arch-yet-ebullient allure. The movie dresses up the old Yankee alienation in a fantastic re-creation of the funky, Formica ’70s — Watergate and porno chic, Frank Zappa and sweater vests, bongs, pharmaceuticals, and wife-swapping ”key parties.” The orgy of cultural detritus is more than period window dressing. It’s a sign that the world has begun to change too quickly — so fast, in fact, that the characters are nudged out of their ruts, but with a new awareness of their separation from each other.
Kevin Kline is sweetly befuddled as a good man caught between two worlds, and Sigourney Weaver, as a hard-bitten sexy adulteress who’ll never be happy, makes her wit sting. It’s Christina Ricci, from the Addams Family films, who creates the movie’s most layered character — a TV-generation nihilist secretly addicted to the sanctuary of her lost girlhood. I wish The Ice Storm didn’t turn moralistic, with its ”dark” last act (the storm itself is gorgeous but thuddingly metaphorical), its tragic he-died-for-our-sins finale. At its best, though, it’s an anthropological soap opera that casts a hushed, elegant spell. B+