A vision of an emotionally drained, dysfuctional suburban American family hopelessly mired in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal and ineffectually coping with wife-swapping and barbiturates.
With his fifth feature film in five years, Ang Lee seems incapable of making a less than outstanding movie. Following his winning Taiwanese Father Knows Best trilogy - Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman - and his scrumptious journey in Jane Austen's Sense And Sensibility, he again explores a family's heartbeat and cross-generational conflict. But the time period and geography are something else again. This is an almost cringe-makingly detailed trip through middle-class confusion in 1970s Connecticut, beautifully adapted from Rick Moody's highly-regarded novel by Lee's regular producer James Schamus.
Kevin Kline is Ben Hood, the father who is trying but doesn't have a clue, like all around him in an America that has broken morally and spiritually adrift. His carefully coiffed wife Elena (Allen) looks like a Stepford robot but is getting itchy for some liberated self-realisation. His neighbour Janey (Weaver) is the swinger next door who makes her waterbed freely available to him while denying him any warmth that may lurk beneath her cold, brittle indifference.
Simultaneously, Ben and Elena's teenaged son (Tobey Maguire), en route from prep school for the Thanksgiving holiday, is having a Holden Caulfield weekend and pubescent daughter (Ricci) is playing "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" with the anxious, oddball boys next door (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd).
Lee's vision of an emotionally drained suburban America hopelessly mired in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal and ineffectually coping with wife-swapping and barbiturates, confirms the 70s as the most excruciating style decade of the century, the totally tragic duds emblematic of the mass inability to get a grip.
The film scores insights both in sharply observed social satire and poignantly universal details of sexual longing in the interwoven tales of parental mid-life crises and teen angst. But Lee's most impressive achievement is his almost imperceptible shift from sex farce to achingly funny youth drama to profound tragedy and despair as the approaching winter freeze of the title mirrors the family's emotional chill and the devastation it brings. The dazzling ensemble perfectly captures every nuance in one of the finest acting showcases you could hope for.
The real beauty of this film is the way in which Ang Lee shifts his story from sex farce to youth drama to tragic despair with the help of a perfect ensemble cast.