It’s 1973, and the Hood family has it all. The contemporary modern in suburban Connecticut, the prep school educations, kitchen appliances up the yin-yang. The sexual revolution is even busting cracks in the Hoods’ steely New England reserve. So why is each and every one of them on the edge of a breakdown?
It’s 1977, and the unofficial ”family” coalescing around porn king Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is riding high: big-time paydays, jobs that are exactly as good as sex, even mainstream respect. So how come they’ll all be flaming out within a few years?
Pleasingly coincidental in their home-video timing, The Ice Storm and Boogie Nights hone in on the miseries that lurk amid splendor, each insisting that those who run after the carrot of carnal freedom are misguided at best and dangerous at worst. That both films are set in the 1970s has as much to do with giving ’90s audiences some breathing room as with depicting the cultural neuroses particular to the period (a less fancy way of saying this is that it’s easier to take a character’s pain when you’re laughing at his puke-green polyester shirt). Thankfully, each movie still stings in ways that other Hollywood films work hard to avoid.
Adapted from Rick Moody’s acclaimed novel, The Ice Storm presents a classic preppy-malaise landscape out of J.D. Salinger, but caught at the historical moment when it seemed that real emotional intimacy could be had by shagging the closest person around. So Dad (Kevin Kline) has an affair with the icy neighbor lady (Sigourney Weaver), who is later seen curled up fetally on her water bed; Mom (Joan Allen) has an awful grope session in a car after a drunken spouse-swapping party; Sis (Christina Ricci) terrifies the local boys by pulling down their pants. Everybody swings; nobody connects.
Like most of director Ang Lee’s films (Sense and Sensibility, The Wedding Banquet), Ice finally seems a little too studied, too aware of its own artful sadness. Maybe that’s a personal reaction: I was a teenager in the same time and milieu, and I do remember my fellow WASPs smiling, even laughing on occasion. It’s impossible to ignore the rich performances by Allen, Weaver, and Ricci (Kline tries honorably, but fails to find depth in a shallow character), but Ice Storm truly haunts only when Elijah Wood is on screen, playing a gentle young suburban lad who no one but the audience sees has drifted into psychosis.
If Ice is stylistically as cool as its title, Boogie Nights exudes heat from the ecstatic gyrations of its opening shot. No staid literary roots here; instead, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is working out of the Scorsese wing of the Movie God Museum. At times, Boogie plays like a Left Coast Goodfellas especially in the way it calmly, even fondly, pierces the delusions of its porno-industry dreamers. But even Saint Marty wouldn’t hazard the whiff of primal human mystery hovering in the background — the wheezy organ music that seems to leak through the movie’s very sprocket holes.
Where Anderson hits pay dirt is in Boogie Nights’ funky cultural context. The studs and babes of Jack Horner’s sex-film stable — Travolta wannabe Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), edgy mother hen Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), naive stallion Buck (Don Cheadle) — are living the same hormone-soaked post-’60s fantasy that leads Ben and Elena Hood to that key party in Connecticut: Free your body and your soul will follow.
Sorry, no. Madness, drug addiction, and death follow. They’ve been ready to pounce all the time, really. One of Boogie Nights’ key scenes contrasts a sun-soaked poolside party — the image of decadent SoCal bliss — with the blood flowing from the nose of a convulsing, overdosed woman indoors. The film’s saddest figures are those on the periphery, gawking at all that sex but too physically imperfect to be allowed to play: Little Bill the assistant director (Fargo’s William H. Macy), a cartoon wimp married to a cartoon man-eater (porn legend Nina Hartley); production gofer Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), pasty and fubsy and far back in the closet; financier The Colonel (Robert Ridgely), a cringing pervert hiding behind a Mr. Big facade.
The movie sees these characters with clear-eyed humanity — it would be unwatchable if it didn’t — yet, at the same time, Anderson has it in for them. What’s rarely been noted is how deeply puritanical both Boogie Nights and The Ice Storm are — perhaps because the mid-’90s culture in which they were made is as well. There’s no sex in either movie that is not joyless; more disturbing, everyone is punished except Buck and his wife Jessie (Melora Walters) in Boogie, and they’re saved only through the filmmaker’s godlike whim. It’s hard to deny that these were two of the finer films released last year — personally, I’d trade The Ice Storm’s incandescent female performances and Boogie Nights’ bodacious narrative verve for all of Titanic — but they tell only one side of the era’s story. We’ll have to wait for a less uptight time to hear the other. Ice Storm: B+; Boogie Nights: A