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Ice Harvest, The (2005)

R 88 minutes

Directed by Harold Ramis
Written by Richard Russo, Robert Benton, Scott Phillips

Starring
 · John Cusack
 · Billy Bob Thornton
 · Connie Nielsen
 · Randy Quaid
 · Oliver Platt


Review by Sean Kernan

Director Harold Ramis is best known for lighthearted comedy with an edgy intellect. His best work, 1993's Groundhog's Day, is such a true gem of a film that its polish has only shined brighter in the years subsequent to its release. Most credit for that film goes to Bill Murray's complex curmudgeonly existential performance. But, behind that performance was Ramis' sly, sneaky direction that played games with the audience that many did not discover until years later.

Even in lesser efforts like Analyze This and Analyze That, Ramis has at least delivered moments of pithy intellect and sly commentary. Ramis' latest effort Ice Harvest is nothing like anything he's directed before. A black hearted comic noir so thick with dark irony and detached violence one wonders if a late night cocktail of Pulp Fiction and Fargo somehow festered in Harold Ramis' dreams.

 

Smarts

 
 44%

John Cusack stars in Ice Harvest as Charlie Arglist, a low level midwestern mob lawyer whose job seems to be holding down bar stools in mob controlled strip clubs. Charlie had never shown an ounce of ambition until a mobster named Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) convinced him to lift two million dollars in mob money from a local bank.

Getting the money was easy, now Charlie simply has to get out of Wichita. Unfortunately that will have to wait until morning as the entire town is nearly shut down due to an ice storm. Vic also has a few loose ends to tie up before they can go, including his soon to be ex-wife and a mobster, Roy (Mike Starr), who has discovered Vic and Charlie's scam.

Charlie is not simply waiting out the storm either. He is hiding from Roy while being seduced by Renata (Connie Neilsen), the manager of one the many strip clubs Charlie frequents, who is well aware of the money Vic and Charlie stole and has an eye on joining them in their getaway. Before Charlie can close that deal however, there is the matter of his best friend, Pete (Oliver Platt), who has chosen this night to get record-breakingly drunk and only Charlie can help him get home.

Pete happens to be married to Charlie's ex-wife which leads to an awkwardly humorous scene where Pete confronts his wife's growing dissatisfaction with their marriage in the midst of Christmas dinner at her parents house as Charlie stands by saying goodbye to his young daughter and unhappy son who he never sees. Platt is very funny in the scene but his plot really has little or any relation to the rest of the movie.

The rest of the film is full of double and triplecrosses, bodies pile up high and all the while director Harold Ramis and writers Richard Russo and Robert Benton can't decide if they are making a dark comedy or a modern noir. Cusack's performance is, for the most part, dark comedy. Charlie assesses every plot development with a cowardly paranoia and suspicion that makes him the butt of every joke and the comic victim of every other character in the film.

In fact most of the cast is playing dark comedy. Thornton plays it cool for the most part but then there is the scene, featured prominently in the films trailer, where he has stuffed Roy in a trunk and comically beats it with a golf club which is straight slapstick. This is followed by a funny exchange in the car on the way to dump the body as Roy, in the box, attempts to save his life by convincing Charlie that Vic is going to kill him too and run off with all the money. The scene is funny but nothing after it is and much of what comes before it is unamusing as well.

As Cusack, Thornton, Platt and Starr are all playing dark comic riffs, Ramis is directing a bleak, mean spirited and violent Coen brothers' style anti-thriller with Neilsen's femme fatale and Randy Quaid's mob boss clearly not in on the rest of the cast's joke. The film shifts uncomfortably from ugly violence to black comedy never able to incorporate the two in a way that makes both work.

Ice Harvest is shot as confusingly as it is plotted. Certain scenes have the bleak grays and blacks and dark colors of a noir mystery right down the rascotro lighting. Other scenes feature the bright colors and slick styling of any major mainstream comedy. A scene of Charlie standing in the empty frozen tundra of a Kansas highway is straight noir but the scenes between Cusack and Oliver Platt are from a disfunctional holiday comedy filled with brightly decorated christmas items. The shooting further muddies the line between the films noir and dark comic intentions.

 

Popcorn

 
 51%

John Cusack does find a way to make his hapless loser Charlie work in terms of winning the audience to his side. Even as Charlie engages in some of the bad behavior in the film he retains an air of detached observation. With every dark development Charlie rarely gets riled up, he merely rubs his eyes in frustration and gets down to the distasteful business of surviving this one extraordinarily difficult night.

Oliver Platt's performance is equally as winning as Cusack's. The two actors spark a terrific chemistry in the few scenes they have together. Despite his oafish and even rude actions, Platt's sad sack Pete is very sympathetic in his sad drunken way. Had the film been able to straighten out the problems with its tone Platt and Cusack's performances alone could have made Ice Harvest a worthy effort.

It's not that dark comedy and modern noir are mutually exclusive genres.  It's just a difficult balancing act to make the two elements work together. Fargo, for example works on both levels because of its exceptional cast and the assured direction of the Coen brothers. Ice Harvest director Harold Ramis is unable to find the balance between the comic performances of his cast and the dark action script.

Ramis wants to escape his reputation as a director of light comedy and indulge his dark side but his comic instincts are uncontrollable and express themselves in the direction of his actors. Ramis clearly wants to indulge his dark side in Ice Harvest but he cannot quiet his crowd pleasing instincts. After years of light, entertaining comedies, Ramis is very in tune to giving the audience the simple pleasures that most seek. Ice Harvest is not a film as a whole that can or should give audiences what they want.

The films happy ending underscores my point. Watching Charlie escape with the money and with his pal Pete I could feel the gears turning as Ramis attempted to please the audience with a pseudo-happy ending. But what did Charlie do to deserve a happy ending? Granted that both Cusack and Platt are very good together and earn our sympathy, their plot is from an entirely different movie. Charlie still did a lot of unforgivable things and punishing him in a darkly ironic way would have been a more appropriate ending.

 

Final

With a cast this talented Ice Harvest should be far more entertaining than it is. The failure lies with Ramis who, whether unwilling or unable, cannot find a way to mix his comic instincts with this black-hearted script. The result is a mixed bag of darkly humorous moments and awkward modern noir violence. John Cusack delivers a dead on performance but the film lets him down and more importantly it lets the audience down.



1232 Words Published: 28 November 2005

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