Screens Frozen in place

The Ice Harvest isn’t a dark comedy, but it’s no top-notch thriller, either

One of the many anonymous internet pundits who haunts the Internet Movie Database says that The Ice Harvest “puts the ‘R’ back into Ramis,” and that’s putting it mildly. Director Harold Ramis may have made his bones back in the golden days of cinematic raunch — writing for such comedies as Animal House and Stripes, direct ancestors of the Wedding Crashers and 40-Year Old Virgins of this “hard R” summer — but he has never entered a world as sleazy as the one he depicts here, a Heartland underbelly that we’re asked to believe lurks on the outskirts of Wichita, Kansas.

Billy Bob Thornton and John Cusack play thieves foiled by nature, and human nature, in the lukewarm Ice Harvest.

This is a prairie Underworld full of bars with such names as The Sweet Cage and Tease-O-Rama, where strippers gripe about having to work Christmas and get little sympathy from oily bartenders, where the town’s most respectable citizens have triple-X skeletons in the closet while most other folks are more upfront about their favorite vices.

If Ramis is entering a new level of nastiness, he’s also leaving behind his comfort zone. The Ice Harvest, based on the novel by Scott Phillips, is — unless you count the Brendan Fraser/Elizabeth Hurley hurler Bedazzled — the first non-comedy he has directed. It makes jokes, to be sure, some of which seem to be reaching for the territory of the Coen Brothers’ blackly comic Blood Simple, but the film is essentially a modern noir. (For viewers who are slow to pick this up, the filmmaker’s handling of Connie Nielsen — from the Veronica Lake hairdo to the multiple shots in which shafts of convenient lighting slice across a pair of scheming eyes — should get the point across.) But for all the breasts on display, all the gallons of rotgut swilled, all the pristine Kansas snow defiled by body fluids, The Ice Harvest isn’t entirely convincing on its own nasty terms.

That’s largely because the film never convinces us that its main characters really belong in this seamy world. Among the leads, only Randy Quaid is fully credible here: Bloated and bellicose, his viciously amoral character truly seems like a man who would have been a kingpin whatever his career path — whether as a smut-peddler or (as his Daddy suggested) as a Bible-thumping preacher bilking widows out of their savings. But Quaid only arrives toward the film’s end. Until then, we watch while John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton act out a narrative familiar to any filmgoer.

The two men steal $2 million, then are alarmed to wonder if they can trust each other. They had planned to put Wichita in the rear-view mirror as soon as the deed was done, but a surprise ice storm has made the highways impossibly slick. The pair will have to spend the uncomfortable hours until tomorrow morning (when, if the Gods of Crime are friendly, the sun will come out to thaw their getaway) as if nothing is out of the ordinary.

The night is longest for Cusack, who starts off tipsy and gets drunker the more he suspects he’s holding the short end of the stick. Forced to contend with Thornton’s possible betrayal, thugs on his tail, and his ex-wife’s husband (Oliver Platt, providing the most successful comic relief here), Cusack’s Charlie Arglist really doesn’t need another challenge. Enter Nielsen’s Renata, whose business-slutty wardrobe screams “femme fatale!” long before cinematographer Alar Kivilo starts up with those telltale splashes of light.

The Ice Harvest
Dir. Harold Ramis; writ. Richard Russo, Robert Benton; feat. John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Randy Quaid, Oliver Platt (R)

Writers Richard Russo and Robert Benton come close to capturing the sense of place they had in Nobody’s Fool, bouncing among the members of this small community as the night creeps toward dawn. But other elements undermine the illusion: The imprisoning effect of the weather (upon which the plot depends) doesn’t come across in the film’s look and feel; various threats to Arglist’s well being almost never add up to a visceral menace; and Ramis seems reluctant to nudge his leading man away from that familiar, sympathetic persona.

A little more Grifters would have gone far here. Stephen Frears’ film encouraged Cusack to give one of his least characteristic performances, and he showed that he could be sympathetic on one level and borderline repulsive on another. Here, he’s just a souse with a weak spot for high-priced blondes and bad taste in business partners. Nobody’s expecting Ramis’ comic chops to mutate into a Frears-level insight into avarice and deceit on his first try. But Ice Harvest is stuck in the middle a bit too much to be satisfying on either front.

By John DeFore

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