The Ice Harvest
2005Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt
n his brighter (that is, darkest) moments, John Cusack has crafted a varied list of underhanded personae—desperate lotharios, conflicted killers, two-bit conmen, not to mention his period as the onscreen representative of Woody Allen—all of which are scattered among the bread-and-butter romantic comedy roles that constitute the core of his filmography. And in The Ice Harvest, the disappointing new comedy directed by Harold Ramis, Cusack tries his hardest to fashion another role tailor-made for his gloomy side.
Based on the novel by Scott Phillips, the film follows a tangled plot characteristic of countless noir thrillers: Cusack is Charlie Arglist, a corrupt Wichita lawyer attempting to extort money from the mob boss that he worked to defend. Following Charlie on the night that his plans are to come to fruition with the help of co-conspirator Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), the film takes us on a Christmastime tour of all of the strip joints, watering holes, and roadside puking locales currently offered by the Sunflower State, as Charlie attempts the unenviable task of evading his boss’s henchmen while sorting out who he can actually trust. The Ice Harvest is most successful here, as it gradually introduces us to its world: the intrigue builds through Charlie and the messiness of his failed personal life, while Ramis plays up the dark plot against traditional holiday activities for an occasional (but only sporadically funny) laugh.
For his part, Ramis has been at the helm of a number of screwball classics over the years (as well as his masterpiece, Groundhog Day, with now-estranged collaborator Bill Murray), but The Ice Harvest’s sardonic humour and bleak depiction of body disposal practices seem about a decade too late. (Think about how the unfortunate Joe Pesci/David Spade vehicle 8 Heads in a Duffelbag already smacked of tardy, post-Tarantino opportunism—that was 1997.) The film does, however, boast some fine supporting performances from both Oliver Platt (whose pathetically drunk, buddy character stands as a slobbering paragon of yuletide excess), and a misanthropic (what else?) Billy Bob Thornton, who continues his Grinch-like crusade to ruin Christmas, or at least rough it up a little, as he did in 2003’s Bad Santa. In the end, however, the humour falls prey to the kind of smug, self-satisfaction that afflicts so much black comedy.
Most disappointing, perhaps, is The Ice Harvest’s villain revelation scene, the moment in certain hardboiled films noir when the mystery-antagonist—whose name has been dropped in nearly every conversation, but who has yet to appear in the film proper—emerges for the first time to settle his accounts. Ideally, it’s the scene in which we finally understand the trepidation experienced by everyone in the underworld toward this powerful figure, and when we recognize just what our hero has been up against. Convention dictates that it should probably also be a star, someone who commands a presence with the audience despite the late-breaking screen appearance. But like most things in The Ice Harvest, the arrival of mob boss Bill Guerrard misses the mark. I can’t claim that I was hoping for the equivalent of a wily cat leading me on a path to Orson Welles standing in a Viennese doorway, but The Ice Harvest’s climax is such that we are left with an underwhelming, ho-hum conclusion that fails to either live up to or challenge its generic precursors.
So does the film represent a fatal misstep for Cusack? Probably not. The encouraging fact remains that unlike a lot of men, who at a certain age begin the humbling process of becoming their fathers, Cusack has seemingly stalled out at his older sister. In fact, his flustered, white-collar Charlie is exactly the kind of character suited to Joan Cusack’s brand of ticks and anxieties. This is by no means a bad thing, either, as both siblings have always been expert at not choosing roles for their likeability, relying instead upon the strength of a film’s writing and direction to buoy their performances. A mediocre entry in the growing anti-Christmas genre, The Ice Harvest can’t quite shed the clichés that adorn it, achieving an all-too-appropriate level of holiday frustration.
By: Bob Kotyk
Published on: 2005-12-02