Based on Rick Moody's novel, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm takes place in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1973, but the film evokes the period so thoroughly that datelines are hardly necessary, since the costumes, the décor, and most importantly, the attitudes reflect a time of awkward transition for the American family. The '60s are over, yet the aftershocks have reverberated to the suburbs, where parents try to square their traditional lifestyle with the counterculture, cherry-picking only the parts that grant them the freedom to seek out their own gratification at any cost. Some have labeled The Ice Storm a prudish, reactionary film, because its tragedy can be attributed to hippie permissiveness and alternative family values. But it's more about hypocrisy than loose morals—people who want free love and lower taxes, and who chide their kids for speaking ill of Richard Nixon.
Set over Thanksgiving break, The Ice Storm deals with the tensions within and between two neighboring families. With a simpering grin plastered on his face, Kevin Kline stars as the patriarch of one family, who has been having an affair with the matriarch of the other, played with mirthless snap by Sigourney Weaver. As the film opens, their affair is practically an open secret, and Kline's halfhearted efforts to cover his tracks deepens the embarrassment of his wife, Joan Allen. Meanwhile, their kids are exploring their own nascent sexuality: Kline's son (Tobey Maguire), back from school, awkwardly courts a rich girl (Katie Holmes) while his daughter (Christina Ricci) toys with Weaver's inexperienced sons (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd).
Building to a tragicomic "key party," where unhappily married couples compound their misery by becoming swingers for a night, The Ice Storm is so freighted with metaphorical baggage that it nearly buckles at the knees. (One more close-up of an ice-tray cracking might have sent it over the edge.) Lee's broad points about generational uncertainty and the breakdown of the American family are treated with too heavy a hand, but the film thrives in the particulars, with uniformly strong performances, enveloping period detail, and a coda suffused with anguish and an ironic glint of salvation. In this lingering hangover of a movie, the only hope is a cold splash of water to the face.
Key features: A surprisingly casual and jokey commentary track by longtime collaborators Lee and writer-producer James Schamus on the first disc. On the second, thoughtful reflections by the actors, Moody, and key crewmembers join a MOMI Q&A; with Lee and Schamus, plus four strong deleted scenes.