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The Ice Harvest
Two and a Half Stars
by Daniel Fienberg, Zap2it.com
In Harold Ramis' "The Ice Harvest," Wichita isn't so much an actual city in Kansas, as it's meant to be a state of mind, or a general tone. The Wichita depicted in the darkly comic semi-noir tale is Middle America in a petri dish, a land of sordid strip clubs, busy churches, generalized malaise and localized hypocrisy. It's not a great place to visit and you sure as heck wouldn't want to live there. Perhaps that's why "Ice Harvest" seems so transitory. At 88 minutes, it's barely started when it ends and it lingers just as long in the memory, though there are frequent minor pleasures along the way.
It's Christmas Eve and mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) and ambiguously employed (in Scott Phillips' book, he runs a pornography store) Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) have somehow boosted $2.147 million from the local godfather (Randy Quaid, eventually). The crime was a breeze, not that we see how it went down. They're planning to leave Wichita late at night and never look back. They just need to kill a few hours before the freezing rain stops.
For Charlie, that means flirting with Renata (Connie Nielsen), a mysteriously foreign club manager, carousing with drunken former best friend Peter (Oliver Platt) and generally avoiding the mysterious people trying to find him. For Vic, that means not really being in the movie (the character's in the book even less, but the filmmakers figured audiences will clamoring for a "Pushing Tin" reunion). Of course, nothing could possibly go right in a story like this and before long there are murders, betrayals and all kinds of atypical Christmas cheer.
On one hand, "Ice Harvest" is more bleak than the typical fair associated with Ramis ("Groundhog Day," "Analyze This"), but screenwriters Robert Benton and Richard Russo have actually transformed Phillips' straight-forwardly satisfying crime novel into a meditation on the state of modern masculinity and the regrets that strike American men at a certain point in their lives. Cusack's Charlie has always had certain aspirations of class mobility, but he also recognizes the hollowness of his life, an existence without a single defining moment. Taken in that context, "Ice Harvest" suddenly looks very familiar for both Russo ("Nobody's Fool," "Empire Falls") and Ramis. Without falling into a "Groundhog Day"-style metaphysical loop, Charlie has been living the same day over and over for at least a year, but he's on the verge of making a change.
Ramis tries to punctuate the cynical grimness (Focus Features would like to convince audiences that "Ice Harvest" is of a piece with last winter's vastly more effective "Bad Santa") with broader comedy, but the film's tone remains elusive. There are pratfalls and a wildly funny scene with a hitman in a metal trunk and Platt plays his drunk failure of a man with great gusto. They're just detours around the all-too-conventional noir twists, bursts of violence and an existential journey that eventually takes the film to a very different ending from the book.
While "Ice Harvest" has a "Fargo" vibe of big city crime awkwardly transplanted to the Midwest, Ramis and cinematographer Alar Kivilo actually deliver a muted banality that's more in line with Alexander Payne's Kansas, but less suited to the genre. Viewers are likely to leave this movie not having laughed as much as they expected, not having gotten as many thrills as they hoped for and generally ambivalent to the whole experience.
None of the actors are required to stretch very much. Cusack is in his comfortable indie mode, where he wears dark shirts and solid colored ties and delivers effortless cool, which isn't exactly what Charlie's character is supposed to be. Thornton bites off some sarcastic lines of dialogue with obvious pleasure, but despite what the posters would lead you to believe, Vic is barely even a supporting character. Nielsen is perfectly cast in the femme fatale role, but beyond looking the part, her character is also a bit vague. The film's best performances come from Platt and Quaid, the actors who get to play the broadest characters. Those two veteran scene-stealers break through the film's malaise and add color whenever they appear.
As a DVD rental, "Ice Harvest" will seem like less of an under-developed missed opportunity. The most effective facets -- an awkward family dinner, a bouncer who resents his aged mother, the cryptically repeated message "As Wichita Falls, So Falls Wichita Falls" -- and the resonant themes just aren't