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Ice Harvest, The

Reviewed By Jack Sommersby
Posted 02/20/14 08:45:17

"Not Your Typical Yuletide Tale"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Despite racking up an unimpressive box-office take, the movie has garnered something of a following and hasn't been badmouthed by anyone I know who's seen it. Worth taking a chance on.

Critics have been giving the black comedy The Ice Harvest quite a bad rap, which is unfortunate in that it's a consistently entertaining movie but not altogether unexpected in that it pushes the envelope a bit more than some critics will feel comfortable with. In this day and age, puerile entries in this subgenre by the dubious likes of American Beauty and Adaptation are celebrated more by the attempt at art rather than the actual achievement of it -- they're judged thematically as opposed to contextually, so when the plasticity of both suburbia and Hollywood is targeted, critics who like to think they think can pat themselves on the back for supporting something supposedly "biting" even if the material couldn't be more trite. The Ice Harvest, a comedic neo-noir set in wintry Wichita, Kansas, on Christmas Eve, hasn't set its sights particularly high, but within its limited parameters it manages to work a miracle or two, and if there's a bum scene anywhere in it, I must have h'd a narcoleptic episode. The story is very simple: John Cusack's Charlie Arglist, a shady Mob lawyer, has teamed with Billy Bob Thornton's adult-massage-parlor owner Vic Cavanaugh to steal two-million dollars from Charlie's Kansas City-based boss; as the movie opens, Charlie has succeeded in acquiring a satchel full of stacks of one-hundred dollar bills, he hands the money over to Vic for safe-keeping until they can drive to the airport the next morning when the inclement weather has cleared, and all kinds of unforeseen obstacles unfold along the way. Echoes of George Gallo's wretched Trouble in Paradise immediately spring to mind, but the viewer can rest assured this similar story is developed much better and there are some actual laughs in it. I haven't read the same-title novel by Scott Phillips the movie is based on, but the screenwriting duo of Richard Russo and Robert Benton, the latter of whom wrote the screenplay for and directed the extraordinary 1994 adaptation of the former's novel Nobody's Fool, have imparted some of the very same sharp wit that graced that Paul Newman star vehicle, especially in its attention to detail where modern conveniences still haven't fully managed to eclipse the individuality of the community. Wichita is considerably larger than the upstate New York town of North Bath of Nobody's Fool, but they're both Hell in the winter, with the populace hunkered down in either homes or bars riding things out -- they could be outposts on the moon for all the outside inactivity and inside commotion; these aren't resplendent locales out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The movie starts out early evening and ends early the next morning right when the sun has managed to somewhat break through, and it's not until then that you realize just how masterly director Harold Ramis and cinematographer Alar Kivilo have woven such a delicious tapestry of noir minus any self-congratulatory airs. Kivilo lit another winter-set crime tale, A Simple Plan, but his work here has more the vitality he displayed in the otherwise-negligible thriller The Glass House. And Ramis, responsible for such comedy classics as Caddyshack and Groundhog Day, comes through with his most visually sophisticated production to date -- note how dexterously he shoots a commonplace scene of a trunk with a body in it being dragged to the end of a pier to be pushed off, or his decision to slowly pan in a medium shot rather than zoom in during a close-up to hint at a character's not-yet-revealed duplicity. Violence is employed in the proceedings, but it's properly proportioned and executed with a knowing assurance that keeps the tone from jarring out of place; and even though just about every character is intrinsically seedy and out for nobody but him- or herself, because of the sterling contributions of the cast, we, miraculously enough, find ourselves yielding to them more often than not. Thornton has never put his alert reserve and caustic way with a one-liner to better use ("One night, driving a Mercedes, and already you're an asshole."). The always-welcome Oliver Platt, as the habitually intoxicated husband of Charlie's ex-wife, helps make a chaotic Christmas-turkey domestic dinner scene the best of its kind since National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. In just one scene, Randy Quaid plays the mob boss with his customary adroitness. Connie Nielsen, previously wasted in unchallenging roles in mediocrities One Hour Photo and Basic, is spellbindingly luminous as a strip-club owner who might or might not have Charlie's best interests at heart. And Cusack, having the least colorful role, succeeds in maintaining audience attention throughout with the understated confidence that the camera will reach in and get the performance. Still, I wish the moviemakers had allowed Cusack to be funnier. He's playing the straight man, and at times I wouldn't have minded some of the inspired exasperation that graced his breakthrough role in The Sure Thing. But he has his moments, particularly at the end when someone tells Charlie he's the best person he knows, and Cusack eases into the amusing last line of the movie, "I'm awfully sorry to hear that."

Cusack and Thornton previously co-starred in "Pushing Tin," but this movie is the better of the two.

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