When most critics and film nerds speak enthusiastically about the films Harold Ramis has written or directed, they usually wax nostalgic for comedies like Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, Stripes, Animal House, or Groundhog Day. There’s good reason to celebrate those films, they are all legitimately funny and hold up today when many comedies from the late ‘70s through the early ‘90s feel dated and cheesy. But it’s a sad fact that his career took a downturn in the late ‘90s with such dreck as Analyze This, Bedazzled, and the even more abominable sequel, Analyze That. When his comeback film rolled around in the form of The Ice Harvest, Ramis had been all but written off as past his prime and the film bombed. Even on DVD, which would seem the ideal place for such a cynical, bleakly funny movie to find an audience, it has failed to make much of an impression.
Charlie (John Cusack) and Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) are miserable bastards. Charlie is a shady lawyer in Wichita, Kansas who works for Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), a mobster based out of Kansas City. Divorced from his cold wife, hated by his son, and depressed by his empty existence, Charlie wastes away his days by drinking steadily at any one of the several strip clubs that operate as fronts for Bill. Vic also works for Bill, managing one of the strip clubs, various massage parlors, and pornography shops. He resents his wife who has slowly eaten herself into obesity, and has a deep anger at being stuck in Wichita.
As the film opens, it’s Christmas Eve and Charlie and Vic have quietly embezzled two million dollars of Bill’s money. All they have to do is get through the night as though nothing has happened, drive to the airport in Kansas City, and fly away from all their miseries forever. But Charlie quickly grows paranoid as Roy (Mike Starr), an enforcer for Bill, arrives in town and begins asking questions about where Charlie and Vic are located. To make matters worse, they can’t leave town until the morning because of an ice storm that has made it dangerous to drive.
To say anymore about the plot would ruin much of the fun of watching the film.
Interestingly, going just off this plot setup, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking it could only go in two directions:
- A hard-boiled film noir about trying to get away with the perfect crime when everything is stacked against you.
- A whacky, slapstick comedy that finds Charlie and Vic trying to screw each other out of the money while avoiding Roy and the possibility of violent death at his hands.
Ramis, working from a script by veteran writer/director Robert Benton and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Russo, throws a curveball by revealing the film is actually a grim character study of Charlie. Sure it has elements of film noir in the stylized lighting and a femme fatale in the person of Renata (Connie Nielsen), the owner of yet another strip club, whom Charlie has convinced himself he’s in love with. And the film is also very funny in places with witty, caustic dialogue and vividly drawn and performed supporting characters. But when all is said and done, Ramis is merely presenting us with the sad tale of a man who thought he could sink no further only to discover there was still a long way to go before hitting rock bottom.
In many ways, the film feels almost experimental. After the first fifteen minutes that establishes who Charlie, Vic, and Renata are and that Roy is bad news, Ramis shifts gears and spends the next twenty minutes following Charlie as he is dragged into the drinking binge of his friend, Pete (Oliver Platt). It seems that Pete is married to Charlie’s ex-wife, but the two of them are still friends, bonded over their mutual hatred of the woman both of them have married. The scenes between Charlie and Pete are often hilarious, but they also serve to show the fear that Charlie felt of being swallowed up in the family life, something he never believed he could handle. Seeing how Pete has gone downhill since he essentially took Charlie’s place in the family, only to wind up a miserable drunk, Charlie feels that his decision to abandon his family and not to feel guilt was a sound one. As he puts it at one point: “It is futile to regret.”
But this cavalier attitude is tested time and again as the film rolls along, forcing Charlie to examine the deadly consequences his initial decision to steal from Bill has led to. As the cowardly and amoral Charlie finds the morality and backbone that he thought he had lost forever, he finds himself acknowledging that his belief system is flawed. But as Ramis makes abundantly clear, this realization is not the same thing as redemption.
That’s a hell of an arc for an actor to play, and Cusack nails it. He tweaks his slightly smarmy, nice guy routine to make Charlie the ultimate sad sack. He may talk a good game about the futility of regret, but as he encounters the ghosts of his past and the escalating horrors of his present, the overwhelming weight of a lifetime of bad choices plays across his face in beautiful, subtle moments. From the pity he shows Pete to the fear he feels in the presence of the increasingly unstable Vic, Cusack is able to convey everything his character is thinking with his expressive face. You could practically watch the movie on mute and still understand what is happening.
But I do not recommend muting this movie. You would miss some of the sharpest dialogue this side of Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network. Benton and Russo (working from the novel by Scott Phillips) provide line after brilliant line for not only Cusack, but also Thornton, Platt, and Quaid. Ranging from Vic’s caustic one-liners to Pete’s sadly sincere expressions of regret about his marriage, there’s never a false note in the dialogue.
While it’s Cusack’s show, every member of the cast must have realized how good the script is because they all bring their A-game. Thornton taps into his blunt, caustic Bad Santa performance to make Vic simultaneously hilarious and frightening. The sadistic glee he shows at turning the tables on Roy is something to behold. Platt hams it up nicely as the oft-drunk Pete, but he understands that people are often at their most honest when under the influence. He also perfectly captures Pete’s swings between jovial celebration and self-pity. Quaid proves a surprisingly scary villain. While his dialogue is quite funny, he plays Bill’s anger and murderous intentions for real, lending a true element of danger to the film just when it needs it. Even less important supporting characters like Sidney (Ned Bellamy), a bartender with anger-control issues, is given a sense of actual humanity through the excellent writing and Bellamy’s demented performance.
I know that some people may complain that we never see how Charlie and Vic manage to steal the money or how certain plot twists transpire. The simple answer to the first charge is that it doesn’t matter. The film isn’t about a heist, it’s about the sober realization that getting away with a crime is far more difficult than committing the actual crime. As far as not learning about how some of the plot twists happen–I found that refreshing. The film follows Charlie as he often stumbles into the aftermath of violence and other absurdities. The audience only knows what Charlie knows and since he’s in survival mode, I found it believable that he wouldn’t ask a lot of questions about how a character wound up stuffed in a trunk. If anything, I find that Charlie’s acceptance of such bizarre facts contributes to the suspense and very dark humor.
Backed by great cinematography from Alar Kivilo and an atmospheric score by David Kitay, Ramis walks a tonally difficult tightrope to offer up something original. The Ice Harvest is unlike any other film he has taken on. Maybe the expectations for a laugh-out loud comedy are why it bombed at the box office, but that’s no reason to consider the film a failure. Quite the opposite, this is a great film that deserves to be seen.
NOTE: The following trailer is the only one I could find. It completely misses the tone of the film and is mostly made up of material that wound up on the cutting room floor. I feel this massively miscalculated bit of marketing contributed to the film’s anemic showing at the box office.
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