Early on in "The Ice Harvest," dispirited mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), who has just stolen over two million dollars in cash from his boss, seeks a moment of quiet in the restroom of a seedy strip club. It's Christmas Eve, and his shady accomplice, the cool, calm Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), is keeping the money safe for them as they make last-minute arrangements to skip town. As Charlie stands in front of the urinal, a piece of wall graffiti catches his eye that reads, "As Wichita falls, so falls Wichita Falls." It's a harbinger of doom for Charlie as much as it is a trickily worded comment on the Kansas city, and he knows it. This saying, which pops up a couple more times throughout the night, is worth mentioning because it is one of the few clever details in an otherwise unoriginal screenplay by Richard Russo and Robert Benton.
Directed by the usually lighthearted Harold Ramis (2002's "Analyze That
"), "The Ice Harvest" is a humor-laced crime caper so pitch black that it can hardly be classified as a comedy at all. This goes against the misleading advertising campaign that makes a comparison to 2003's hilariously raunchy "Bad Santa
"the only real similarities are that both are R-rated, set around the holiday season, and star Billy Bob Thorntonbut never mind. In actuality, "The Ice Harvest" lays claim to a handful of small perverse laughs, but even that humor will be lost upon a large part of the audience not exactly expecting a graphically violent thriller that culminates with three-fourths of the central characters motionless in pools of their own blood.
Taken as a straight crime picture, "The Ice Harvest" follows the classic formula of the film noir
genre without any deviations from the norm. Set entirely over Christmas Eve night, it's the type of movie in which none of the characters circling Charlie can be trusted, ulterior motives run rampant, and everything that could go wrong does for our protagonista criminal himself, since he stole the bag of millions to begin with. The morally questionable lineup of people figuring into the story include the aforementioned Vic, who will do whatever necessary, including killing family members, to keep the stash in his hands; sultry strip club owner Renata (Connie Nielsen), who Charlie propositions to run away with him; and the persistent Roy Gelles (Mike Starr), who spends most of the running time making threats to Charlie and Vic while locked inside a trunk. And then there's Charlie's sort-of friend, Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt), a mouthy drunk who confesses to sleeping with his ex-wife while he was married and has no reservations about announcing to complete strangers that Charlie is a "mob lawyer." Coincidentally, Pete might be the most virtuous person on view in this bleak and empty exercise in gunfire and cliches.
John Cusack (2005's "Must Love Dogs
"), who so often appears in romantic comedies, is a greatly undervalued actor, and it is nice to see him playing an edgier part. Even when the conflicted Charlie is doing unsavory things, Cusack makes him an intriguing, fully likable guy who you'd want to knock back and have a beer with. Since it is his misadventures that are followed in every scene, the rest of the cast have substantially less screen time. Billy Bob Thornton (2005's "Bad News Bears
") and Connie Nielsen (2002's "One Hour Photo
"), her hair, make-up and costume so primped and overdone that Renata is a suspected bad apple from the start, are playing types rather than flesh-and-blood people. Still, they are good enough in general that they pull their thin roles off with aplomb.
Surrounding a few memorable set-piecesone taking place on a rickety pier overlooking an icy lake, another being the gory climactic showdown"The Ice Harvest" conforms to convention and can't rustle up a single surprising or creative plot turn. Director Harold Ramis has made a film almost mechanical in its ugly, overwhelmingly stony portrayal of the human condition, and fails to bring enough depth or style to the proceedings to offset the unpleasant nature of the script. "The Ice Harvest" has talent to spare in front of the camera, but isn't nearly as smart or sharp as it would like to be. Adult audiences deciding to take a chance on this unfulfilling Christmas-set release based on their affection for "Bad Santa
" will be in for a lump of coal and a bitter taste in their mouths.