Sure, Harold Ramis’s “The Ice Harvest” has been marketed as a kooky crime caper in the vein of Elmore Leonard. But, in fact, this is a nasty film about people and the nasty things they can do.
Really, there’s not a single likeable, relatable or empathetic human being to be found in “The Ice Harvest.” Consider Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), a sleaze merchant of sorts, who is capable of shooting his wife in the head for money. Or take Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt, “Kinsey”), a drunken mess of a character capable of embarrassing a close friend’s ex-wife (or, rather, his own current wife) in front of family, courtesy of a yuletide drunken spell. Or there’s Renata (Connie Nielson, “Gladiator”), who might be a hooker with a heart of gold but for those little dollar signs in her eyes.
And still there is Charlie Arglist, a mob lawyer who just made off with $2 million in mob money, or so he thinks. He’s our main character, the protagonist, the anti-hero. Or at least he would be if he were a little bit more amiable, or even the least bit engaging. But he’s so sleazy that who really cares if he gets away? Played with deadpan self-deprecation by John Cusack, Arglist is neither an actual person nor worthy of the audience’s care. Therein lies the major problem with “The Ice Harvest”: The film, above all else, is just really unlikable.
Still, there’s an interesting piece of noir-esque filmmaking buried somewhere in here; it’s too bad the movie is drenched in an icy, vacant exterior. Ramis shoots for a low-key, well-scripted story but ultimately puts too much on the screen, trying too hard to be subtle.
Ramis, a veteran of Chicago’s Second City comedy group, has achieved high art in comedy before, with such classics as “Groundhog Day,” “Analyze This” and the always quotable “Caddyshack.” But here, he’s out of his element with such mean-spirited subject matter, and the direction falters when the drama and tension come to a peak. There are little tidbits of humor, including some fun jabs at small-town conservatism and a nice moment involving a car trunk with someone inside.
These scenes are the only ones in which the movie succeeds; if Ramis had continued in that direction, he might have really had something.
Instead, the film is dazed and confused – not just because of its plot twist or seedy characters, but also because of the complete disparity between the marketed product and what winds up on screen. It’s almost like being lied to. Not that a mean-spirited crime story couldn’t have fit here. It just winds up not working. When it comes down to it, it’s not clever and it’s not funny. It’s simply bad people doing bad things, nothing more.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars