Thursday, August 15, 2013

Slippery When Wet: THE ICE HARVEST

"Just act normal for a few hours and we're home free."
This advice, dispensed to Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) by partner-in-crime Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), is, of course, the crumbling bedrock on which many a crime film is built. And yet Cusack's weak-willed mob lawyer, who along with shady businessman Vic has just ripped off Charlie's boss to the tune of $2 million, truly believes in the perfect crime. As he explains in The Ice Harvest's opening narration, pulling one off is "only a matter of character."

But character is in short supply where Charlie is concerned. Waiting for the city's icy roads to clear before he and Vic can hightail it out of Wichita, Charlie spends one of history's most depressing Christmas Eves laying low at a favorite strip club, acting anything but normal. It's not long before he's dragging behind him a trail of interested parties, including mob enforcer Roy Gelles, strip club owner Renata Crest, an ass-kissing cop, a favor-seeking politician, and Charlie's drunken buddy Pete (Oliver Platt), who happens to be married to his ex-wife. Meanwhile, Vic is no longer giving Charlie the warm fuzzies about their shared plan, adding to his growing paranoia.

If Charlie, forever seeking the path of least resistance, is lacking the necessary character to solve his problems honestly, the same can't be said for The Ice Harvest, a funny, sordid little gem made by grownups, for grownups. Based on a novel by Scott Phillips, this bracing comic noir displays a confidence and narrative assurance all too rare amid the anything-goes pandering often perpetrated by Hollywood. Harold Ramis, the film's director, has been responsible for such pandering himself, both successfully (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Analyze This) and not-so successfully (Multiplicity, Analyze That). But here he restrains his crowd-pleasing tendencies to service a taut and clever screenplay, adapted by veteran writers Robert Benton and Richard Russo.

At times it's hard to believe this is the same writer/director who cut his teeth on wacky Bill Murray and Chevy Chase comedies, not to mention bringing us Robert DeNiro as a comic mafioso and Jack Black as a caveman (Year One). Yet Ramis proves himself more than capable of shifting into this darker gear. Working on an indie production for the first time, he seems liberated by the low ($16 million) budget, gleefully getting his hands dirty while depicting what he calls "the human side of larceny."

With reference points to classic film noir as well as early Coen Bros. (Blood Simple, Fargo) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown), the film likewise shares DNA with A Simple Plan and Bad Santa (both of which also starred Billy Bob Thornton). Its mordant wit, existential dread, and slow-building violence may be familiar, but The Ice Harvest is leavened by some cringe-inducing humor while not being above the occasional pratfall. If the direction and camerawork aren't as self-consciously showy as in those other films, they still exhibit a style and flair that rise above the more generic staging necessary to the director's mainstream comedies.

Ramis also knows how to make his actors feel comfortable, and he's able to exploit their individual strengths and obvious chemistry. Cusack and Thornton, who previously worked together in Pushing Tin, display a lively give and take, milking each wary encounter for maximum awkwardness and humor. Vic always seems to be smiling at some private joke that Charlie will never get, while Charlie's dogged attempts to figure everything out only make him more sympathetic.

Cusack, ever the flawed everyman (at least before his recent string of psychopaths), remains likable as a passive character who needs to nut up if he wants to survive the increasingly messy circumstances around him. He really wants to believe that Thornton's Vic is looking out for him, just as he'd like to think he's got a chance with Renata, the flirtatious strip club owner played by Connie Nielsen. But Renata, directed and styled to evoke noir heroines of yore (think Stanwyck, Bacall, and Turner), plays her cards so close there's no telling the ratio of femme to fatale. Lurking over them all is the man whose money was stolen, mob boss Bill Guerrard, played with effective, cockeyed menace by a pre-breakdown Randy Quaid.

You would naturally expect a solid piece of entertainment from pros like Ramis, Cusack, Thornton, and co-writer Benton (Oscar-winning writer of Bonnie & Clyde and Kramer vs. Kramer). But what most distinguishes this modern noir from the rest is Oliver Platt's Pete, the world's most miserable happy drunk and Charlie's only true friend. Having inherited Charlie's wife and family and even his former bachelor pad, Pete is a forlorn reminder of the failed life Charlie so desperately wants to leave behind. Platt steals every scene he's in, bringing a sadness (and occasional wisdom) to Pete's drunken antics that never undercut the laughs. He's a noble fool, and you can see why Charlie feels the need to take care of him. The Ice Harvest may be a tequila shot on a wet winter night--salty, sour, and oh-so-smooth--but its heart and soul belong to Pete.

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