Take the best actors of a certain generation: Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Jamey Sheridan, Donna Mitchell. Combine them with some of the best actors of a different generation: Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood-- heck, throw in Katie Holmes as set decoration. Mix with the direction of world-class award winner Ang Lee. Sprinkle with 70’s nostalgia and steam under the pressure of the eponymous New England Thanksgiving weekend ice storm.
Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?
It’s a disaster.
I knew why I was watching this movie—because I like Tobey Maguire and this was the only film of his the library had on DVD. But it wasn’t very long into this film that I had to ask myself, “Why are you watching this?” Teen angst and sexual awakening are all fine (okay, well, I’m lying, there are few things I hate more than period pieces about sexual awakening). The baffling thing is, the performances in this film are brilliant. Joan Allen, so slender and brittle, acting out her unhappiness through petty thievery. Kevin Kline, having an affair not because he wants sex, but because he likes to talk and nobody will listen to him. Jamey Sheridan, the neighborhood sexpot’s gentle and brilliant husband. Sigourney Weaver, said aging and hardened sexpot.
And that’s just the adults, who don’t really make or break this film. Tobey Maguire plays 16-year-old Paul, who is willing to go far to fit in, but not that far. This kid can’t help it, even when he’s puffing on a giant bong, there’s something dignified and wholesome about him. Christina Ricci, who is unique-looking enough never to be reduced to her looks, plays Paul’s younger sister, 14-year-old Wendy. The two have a rapport that’s both comfortable and contemptuous—perfectly realistic for siblings this age. Wendy is sexually curious, but can’t quite cross the line to sexually experienced, and her wavering back and forth across the line between childhood and true adolescence is one of the more poignant and interesting aspects of the film.
But it’s not interesting enough to waste 114 minutes of my life on. All these young actors give extraordinary performances in other films; there’s no reason to lose two hours of your life you’re going to want back. It doesn’t get really interesting until the unexpected death of Elijah Wood’s character (usually I wouldn’t give spoilers like that, but you’ll be wanting something to look forward to), troubled, drug-addled, but innocent Mikey. Mikey braves the ice storm and loses. That was pretty captivating. Too bad it happened in the last five minutes of the film.
The rest of the film places these extraordinary actors in one of the dullest and least realistic storylines I’ve ever seen. Now, I realize I was a child in the 70’s—younger than the teen characters are supposed to be in the story—but I’m fairly sure that my parents—who were hardly puritans—were not boinking the neighbors or attending “key parties,” which are basically spouse-swapping get-togethers with a free flow of liquor and other substances, which everyone needs to overcome whatever shreds of morality they might have started the film with. Yes, even Pastor Phillip threw his keys in the bowl on this fateful night.
First of all, where I come from, when the news has been telling us for two days that there’s going to be a huge ice-storm, we don’t go to parties and get so smashed we couldn’t drive safely down our driveway in a heat wave. Maybe that’s just my Midwestern practicality coming out; perhaps that all makes sense if you’re from Connecticut. Second of all, if there’s tension in a marriage—and Lee would have us believe that all marriages are this tense—it’d be nice to have someone worried about it. Thirdly, what kind of moronic parents leave the 12- and 14-year-old troubled kids home alone during the ice storm, and without even hiding the booze?
And finally, please don’t end a film with Kevin Kline crying. Even if Maguire’s and Ricci’s reactions are beautiful bordering on exquisite. Even if it provokes Allen to reach out to her husband for the first time in the film. It’s the last freaking ten seconds; could we have some hope, please? Or are we all just doomed to suburban immorality and meaningless death?
In the end, the superior performances notwithstanding, that’s the answer to my question, “Why are you watching this?” There’s no reason to watch it at all. It tells me nothing, gives me nothing, makes me feel nothing but a sort of dull depression. There’s no reason for it to exist. It’s nihilism at its most self-indulgent, and I don’t have time for it. Unlike any character in this film, I have a life.