Title: The Ice Harvest
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama
Director: Harold Ramis
Screenwriters: Richard Russo, Robert Bento
Starring: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen
Well, damned if I didn’t love The Ice Harvest, a straightforward, intelligent noir comedy that is very welcome in a season of wizards, Chris Columbus musicals and Johnny Cash. In it’s anti-yuletide tendencies (“Only morons are nice on Christmas”) and prototypical Billy Bob Thornton character, the film will have to suffer comparisons to Bad Santa, but it’s simpler than even that. It has no aspirations of subversion. It’s a relatively uncomplicated caper story, told with great skill, brilliantly cast. All it’s missing is John Goodman.
But merely because it’s conceptually simple doesn’t mean it doesn’t aspire to greatness. Directed by old hand Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters) and written by Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde, Superman, Kramer v. Kramer) and Richard Russo (Nobody’s Fool, which he co-wrote with Benton), the movie does wonders with mood and character, creating people you probably wouldn’t believe in any movie but this one, and a quirky, nuanced world that seems self-contained. Its version of Wichita, Kansas, is one of the most depressing places I have ever visited in the movies, and yet it is a prime locale for comic hijinks.
The opening sets the tone. After a brief, sardonic intro, we see gloomy shots of Wichita on what we are told is Christmas and then — oh, this is perfect — it starts raining. Not the sort of rain that makes you want to curl up in your recliner by the window with a blanket and a book, but the chilling, disgusting sort of freezing drizzle that makes you want to move somewhere warm, as soon as possible. (How do I know? I just know.) If I were stealing upwards of two million dollars from the mob, I would pick a different day.
But not for Charlie Argilst (John Cusack) and Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) is minutia like the weather. In fact, they’ve already stolen the money, which is resting peacefully in a small leather duffel bag, so their objective is merely to keep cool, keep quiet, keep out of sight until the morning comes and they can get the hell out of dodge. Of course, Charlie is immediately put in charge of his hideously inebriated friend Pete Van Houten (Oliver Platt) who can’t help but attract attention, all the while a fearsome mob goon comes to town and starts asking around for Vic and Charlie.
All of the pieces are here for an all-out farce, but The Ice Harvest brings in a host of unexpected details. Pete, for example, is now married to Charlie’s beautiful, distant ex-wife, and there’s a funny but oddly painful scene where Charlie takes an utterly trashed Pete to where his family is having Christmas dinner. We learn that Charlie has two kids — a preteen boy who hates him, and a very young girl who misses him — and the story becomes even more peculiar. This is just not the sort of element you expect to be introduced into a movie like this, but after it sinks in, it works: these characters have a history, lives and motivations of their own. There is almost the feeling that they are not just here for our amusement.
But they are, of course, and they amuse. Cusack is ever so much more graceful and likable here than in a formulaic clunker like Must Love Dogs, and his understated intelligence and light sarcasm are endearing even as his character goes off the ethical deep end. The reliable Thornton provides precisely the hit of nastiness that the screenplay requires, and Platt has, I swear, a couple of the funniest drunk scenes in history, as he insists on getting into tussles and, much to Charlie’s chagrin, incessantly advertises that the latter is a big mob lawyer.
The screenplay, meanwhile, reins in the remarkable cast and maintains its odd undercurrent of sadness and desperation. If these are mobsters, after all — big criminals — it is sort of sad that their stomping ground is Wichita. If you’re going to die in an icy lake, desperately holding on to a small metal trunk that used to contain a person, it should really be in New York, or Los Angeles. Or at least Philadelphia.