I saw this when it came out in theatres back in the day and was none too impressed with it. I watched it again earlier this week when a friend of mine auditioned it for the role of "modern tragedy he shows to his class to try to make them care about the class."* It didn't make the cut**, but I appreciated the chance to watch it again, especially because my love for Ang Lee has only increased in the intervening years. But you know what? I still didn't like it. It's still a movie about moody, dysfunctional and listless people who are beset by various tragedies, some of their own making, some sheer accident. You can't quite bring yourself to feel bad, because it all seems so inevitable: there is no possible happy ending for this crowd, really. They're going to be miserable no matter what they do.
However, my friend pointed out to me that it's also a movie about a generation and what happened to it, namely, the free love crowd of the 60s who moved out to the suburbs and became disaffected fuck-ups and horrible parents. Ouch. And from that perspective, I guess it is a more interesting movie. And the movie does hint that it should be seen in those terms, I guess, but it still just doesn't really come across to me. I think it's because everyone is so unbelievably uncomfortable - nobody seems relaxed, ever. The dialogue is awkward, usually cutting across painful silences (the whole movie seems pervaded with silence, actually) and to be honest, a lot of it sounds like a pretentious version of the kind of prose you love in earlier 20th century American novels, Salinger, Yates, etc. It all has that kind of earnest urgency, where the most innocent moments are fraught with meaning, and generally overwhelmed with the anguish of being.
What is great though, is the cinematography. My god, it's beautiful. Especially the shots of ice. Just lovely. The way the story unfolds is also well done, in these brief vignettes, giving the whole thing a vaguely dream like air. It's definitely an Ang Lee movie, style wise. It's also fun, I have to say, to see all these various actors looking so young. Not just baby Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood (baby Frodo actually looks basically the same. Poor guy.), but Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver! All sweet and fresh-faced! It's kind of great. Overall though, though I respect the craft of it, this is just not a movie for me.
*One of my students emailed me yesterday and helpfully suggested that watching movies might make people care about the class more. Because, he explained, most of the books are very boring and nobody cares about them, though he did say that it's nice to know what famous books are about.
**That honor went to Chinatown, which is not only awesome, but it's an absolutely brilliant counterpoint to Oedipus. I didn't write a post about it, because all I really have to say is dude, that movie is so awesome, and wtf can someone please explain the plot to me. But it is perhaps worth mentioning that yeah, watching it while thinking about Oedipus is really fascinating. The hero on a relentless search that can only lead to harm, realizing his error too late, etc. Lots of fun.