Ice Harvest

Nov 23, 2005 at 12:00 am

’Tis the season to spurt a little blood on the holiday tinsel. Director Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Analyze This ... and That), eager to shed his giddy goofball reputation, wades into a blood-soaked snow bank of theft, greed and the perfect criminal plan gone horribly wrong.

Set on Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kan., Ice Harvest presents a twisty thriller that invokes similar and better films by its two stars. John Cusack is Charlie Arglist, a sleazy lawyer who’s swindled $2 million from his mobster boss (an all-too-brief Randy Quaid). Billy Bob Thornton is his porn-peddling partner in crime. When the roads unexpectedly ice over, their plans to flee town are thwarted and the two distrusting men must maintain local appearances until the morning thaw.

If it sounds like The Grifters meets A Simple Plan set over the holidays, you’re on the right track. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t have the atmosphere or unexpected turns of those films, nor does it have the gleeful nastiness of Bad Santa. In many ways it recalls Ben Affleck’s unfortunate and misguided Reindeer Games.

Though director Ramis doesn’t shy away from the movie’s more violent moments, he pounds on the comic beats so hard we lose focus on the darker implications of Charlie’s story. Between a murderous thug on his tail, suspicions that Thornton may take the money for himself, a last ditch play to win the heart of an icy femme fatale (blandly beautiful Connie Nielsen), and drunken interludes with his ex-wife’s husband (Oliver Platt), Cusack’s character bounces between half-developed subplots without urgency or conflict. Charlie’s plans end up diluted by meaningless personal encounters and quirky plot detours. Only the scenes with the brilliantly shit-faced Platt carry enough comedic charge to carry us past the moment.

Furthermore, the character is far too likable and sympathetic to be an effective anti-hero. Cusack’s tight-lipped affability never convinces us he belongs to the film’s criminal subculture. From strip joint to steak house to massage parlor and back again, Charlie seems more a tourist than a participant in this seedy world.

Screenwriters Robert Benton and Richard Russo do a good job of establishing Wichita as an interconnected community of late-night personalities, but Ramis fails at evoke either the uniqueness of his Kansas setting or the confining effects of the weather.

One the film’s better conceits is setting the story after the crime has been committed. Tarantino used this to terrific effect in Reservoir Dogs, as did Bill Murray’s underrated Quick Change. But instead of upending film noir conventions with a cascade of after-the-fact complications, Ramis delivers an uninspired concoction of familiar characters and predictable plot twists. What a bummer.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].