The Wife Swappers

A CHILL IS IN THE AIR. IN THE SUBURban Connecticut town of New Canaan, winter approaches. It's 1973, a year of waterbeds, Watergate and wife swapping. Two well-off American families--the Hoods and the Carvers--are floundering in the fallout from the Age of Aquarius, flummoxed by the new sexual freedom they're supposed to be enjoying. Paul Hood (Kevin Kline) is having a joyless affair with a neighbor's wife, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). Down in the Carvers' rec room, 14-year-old Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci), wearing a Nixon mask, is dry-humping the Carvers' space cadet of a son, Mikey (Elijah Wood). Both generations are acting out their adolescence (one belatedly), and no one, if forced to admit it, is having a good time.

The Ice Storm, directed by Ang Lee from Rick Moody's 1994 novel, captures this place, this season, this garish and confused moment in history, with surgical precision. The bad clothes--chain-link belts, too-big collars, ugly brown and orange polyester fabrics. The glass-paneled houses with eyesore modernistic light fixtures and op-art wallpaper. The precociously cynical children who contemptuously refer to Mom and Dad as ""the parental unit,'' or when they're angry, as ""fascists.'' With cool humor and a dark sense of foreboding, Lee and screenwriter James Scha- mus show us how the bad faith of one generation is passed on to the next. They become mirror images: Wendy's unhappy mother, Elena (Joan Allen), reads ""Jonathan Livingston Seagull'' and steals cosmetics at the local pharmacy. Wendy steals from the same shop. The Carvers' younger son, Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), is almost as strange as his older brother. He blows up his model airplanes for a hobby and lops roses off a bush with a whip. Why shouldn't these kids be confused about sex? Their parents are going off to a ""key party,'' where each will pair off with someone else's mate. They won't call it infidelity: it's experimentation. Not betrayal but self-realization.

This is a far cry from the world of ""Sense and Sensibility'' or ""Eat Drink Man Woman'' or ""The Wedding Banquet,'' the Taiwanese Lee's previous movies. Shot by the gifted cinematographer Frederick Elwes (""Blue Velvet''), the images in ""Ice Storm'' have an overcast, autumnal power that can spook you. The chill of the outdoors (the movie goes heavy on the ice imagery) reflects the bigger chill inside these loveless homes. This may be Lee's most haunting movie: delicately balanced between comedy and tragedy, it holds you rapt without having to raise its voice.

But ""The Ice Storm'' leaves a curious aftertaste. Following Moody's lead, the filmmakers judge the adults in this tale harshly. There's a death near the end that can only be read as a judgment against the older generation's errant ways. But the conjunction of melodrama and moralism would be easier to swallow if we knew more about who these grown-ups are. The Hoods and the Carvers are sitting ducks, condemned before they're allowed to fly. Because they are played by such sympathetic and subtle actors--Kline and Allen, Weaver and Jaimie Sheridan as Mr. Carver--you don't notice at first that the characters rarely transcend one note. What do we know about Weaver's Janey except that she's angry? (She plays rage superbly, by the way, just as Allen plays repressed suffering eloquently.) In the novel--which is in many ways harsher than the film--you get a sense of their histories and inner lives. Lee and Schamus grant them a certain pathos, but for a movie that wants to encapsulate an era, these are slender shoulders upon which to rest so large a metaphor.

The movie is too smart to turn the younger generation into saints (as a movie made in 1973 probably would have), but they are more interesting, and more vital, because their fates aren't sealed: they're still mysteries to themselves. Ricci (best known for ""The Addams Family'') is touching, funny and a little scary as she bounces between the adolescent Mikey and the prepubescent Sandy in her search for affection. Hann-Byrd, who starred in ""Little Man Tate,'' makes Sandy, who worships Wendy, a wonderfully sweet and weird kid. Tobey Maguire plays the Hoods' prep-school son, Paul (narrator of the book and the movie), haplessly pursuing romance with a schoolmate beauty who regards him with only sisterly affection. The least damaged of the children, he's the stand-in for the author (and the audience)--the observer who stands just outside the action.

Like Paul, we're kept at a certain distance. Unlike many dramas of middle-class family wreckage, which tilt toward soap-operatic revelations, ""The Ice Storm'' is told from an ironic, almost meditative distance. It's Lee's sympathetic detachment--the sense that he's telling the story from the calm heart of the storm--that gives the movie its paradoxical power. Why, if the characters are stick figures, does this movie have such lingering weight? Lee has caught the surface of an era so indelibly it feels as if he's sounded the depths.