by Mel Valentin
Directed by Harold Ramis ("Groundhog Dog," "Analyze This," "Caddyshack"), written by Richard Russo ("Empire Falls," "Nobody’s Fool") and Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Bonnie and Clyde"), and based on a novel by Scott Phillips, "The Ice Harvest" is a neo-noir crime drama/black comedy centered on an amoral, cynical protagonist/anti-hero, the theft of two million dollars from a gang boss, a (potential) femme fatale, double- and triple-crosses, shoot-outs (more or less), and one or two outbursts of graphic violence and misdemeanor treatment of the newly dead. Despite the obvious talent behind and in front of the cameras, "The Ice Harvest" offers few pleasures beyond the predictably formulaic confines of the genre.Meet Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), a not-particularly bright lawyer for the mob, divorced, father of two, adrift in the empty, nearly desolate urban environs of a wintry Wichita, Kansas. As The Ice Harvest opens, Charlie has boldly executed a plan to steal two million dollars ($2,147,000 and change) from Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), a powerful Kansas City gang boss. Charlie’s associate and partner in crime, a strip-club owner, Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), also sees the two million dollars in stolen funds as the means to escape his dreary life (and loveless marriage). For his part, Charlie has his eye on Renata (Connie Nielsen), the owner/operator of a low-rent strip club, the Sweet Cage.
"The best laid plans of John Cusack and Harold Ramis sadly go awry."
Rather than flee with their ill-gotten gains, however, Vic counsels Charlie to hang tight and enjoy one last night in Wichita Falls. Charlie can’t help but act like a man whose days in Kansas are numbered (it’s also Christmas Eve), which, of course, brings him to the attention of his criminal associates, in particular, Ned Gelles (Mike Starr), one of Guerrard's chief enforcers. At a local bar, Charlie runs into an old friend, Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt). Besides being drunk, Pete is also married to Charlie’s ex-wife. His association with Pete sends him into a painful encounter with his ex-wife, his young daughter (who still adores him), and his angry, disappointed teenage son.
From there, The Ice Harvest sends Charlie into a series of farcical reversals and complications, eventually testing his willingness to use violence and quick thinking to escape the fate of several, unfortunate characters. The characters here, however, are easily recognizable noir-types, from the duplicitous business partner, the hot-tempered, violence-prone gang boss, to the (possibly) deceitful, ruthless female character (her 40's-inspired hairstyle and the lighting around her eyes, particularly her eyes, are dead giveaways), with the amoral protagonist, driven by desperation, boredom, and regret (contrary to Charlie's statements in the film) into making a potentially life-negating decision. If he survives, it’s only because he’s the only character with one, possibly two, redeeming traits. No one else gets the benefit of the doubt (and they shouldn’t).
For a noir-inspired film, it's not surprising that The Ice Harvest has a shortage of sympathetic female characters. They're (potentially) duplicitous, cold and distant (like Charlie's ex-wife or ex-mother-in-law), or strip club employees in desperate need of male protection. All of the female characters are drawn in broad, stereotypical strokes. The most sympathetic female character turns out to be Charlie's young daughter. She, in her innocence, loves Charlie unconditionally, standing alone in rushing to support her father, even when he forgets to attend a local Christmas pageant.Story aside, Harold Ramis and his screenwriters (one of them a Pulitzer Prize-winning author slumming in clichéd genre material), attempt to inject gritty authenticity through the seedy production design, muddy, muted color palette, and a script liberally peppered by tough guys talking tough, or more to the point, tough guys throwing around F-bombs with almost every line of dialogue. My moviegoing companion graciously counted the number of F-bombs (63 total, plus two partials). Along with the casual approach to violence, it smacks of a desperation only partially ameliorated by several blackly comic set pieces, likeable, always watchable actors (Cusack and Thornton, of course, with Nielson wasted in an underwritten role), and Oliver Platt’s memorable performance as a foul-mouthed, world-weary, put-upon, drunk.
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originally posted: 11/23/05 02:48:25