Weather Alert

Washington City Paper | December 2, 2005
The Ice Harvest certainly knows what kind of movie it is. In this Mob-world heist comedy, everyone’s in on the scam. John Cusack’s a businessman with big, bad ideas about how to make some extra money. Billy Bob Thornton’s a sleazebag. And the phrase “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way” is used to soften a potentially reputation-killing compliment—which, in this case, happens to be the observation “You’re just about the nicest guy I know.”

But then there’s Oliver Platt, turning what should be a minor character—a drunk who needs a ride—into one who steals the show from Cusack’s Wichita, Kan., Mafia lawyer/strip-club owner, Charlie, and Thornton’s occupationally nonspecific ne’er-do-well, Vic. Platt is Pete, the husband of Charlie’s ex-wife. Far from being adversaries, Charlie and Pete, who were friends before all the relationship drama, only had their bond strengthened by their unions with the ball-buster. So when a restaurant manager begs Charlie to drive the hammered Pete home after too much reveling one Christmas Eve, he agrees. Besides, he has a more significant stressor to worry about on this particular night: Earlier, he and Vic made off with some $2 million from local kingpin Bill Guerrard (an enormous Randy Quaid). But they can’t skip town because of an unrelenting ice storm, and soon Guerrard is on Charlie’s tail—even though Vic has the cash, Charlie’s the connection.

Pete initially seems merely a lame, annoying wrench in Charlie’s already nerve-wracked, clichéd world. But Platt’s turn as the sloppy but jolly lush brightens every scene he’s in: Perfecting the bleary, crossed-eyed look of the thoroughly wasted, Platt needs only stand slump-shouldered in his disarrayed suit to effect a Horatio Sanz level of genial clownishness. He’s helped by The Ice Harvest’s sardonic script, adapted by Nobody’s Fool collaborators Richard Russo and Robert Benton from a Scott Phillips novel. Here’s Pete looking for some action, right after Charlie claims that he’s bedded his dancers only “when completely desperate, totally shitfaced, or generally had my head up my ass”: “Well I’m all three of those things now, so let’s go!”

Though you may hate yourself in the morning, you may even laugh when Pete pukes. (“You had the whole parking lot,” Charlie chides. “Why’d you have to do it in my car?”) But then again, you may not—not if you knew going in that this is a Harold Ramis movie and not, say, something by Shane Black. Though Cusack and Thornton also get their share of one-liners, this is a less antic film than Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. As the frigid night of transgression wears on—ironically accompanied by holiday tunes—Vic gets more devious. Charlie, for his part, gets more haggard, taking a seedy-Wichita tour of strip clubs and bars as he tries to dodge Guerrard until the weather clears, swigging from a flask as he drives. Subplots involve Charlie’s love interest, club manager Renata (a Veronica Lake–ish Connie Nielsen); an incriminating photo of a local politician that everyone’s scheming to get hold of; and, of course, the baby-sitting of Pete, which branches off into an underdeveloped story about Charlie’s poor relationship with his young kids.

Of course, the important things here are the drive and, naturally, the con. The former unfolds a little lackadaisically by today’s stylish-noir standards, but at least cinematographer Alar Kivilo has the “stylish” part down, making the most of the dark sparkle that freezing rain lends Charlie’s lurid little world. As far as the latter goes, well, the violence escalates toward the end, with double crosses and mistakes of the wrong-place, wrong-time variety leading to corpses, kidnappings, and lots of blood (though the proceedings are mostly kept black-comedy-light, with even a trunk-stuffed bad guy getting a few laughs.) Throughout, Thornton easily handles his usual brand of sarcastic, soulless miscreant while Cusack portrays his more sensitive, anxious crook with a flickering sense of limitation. Russo and Benton’s script doesn’t always add up, and Ramis’ editor slips a little, too—most glaringly by allowing random scenes of dryness in a plot that hinges on continuous drenching precipitation. But as old as the job-gone-wrong story may be, The Ice Harvest is entertaining enough—and any movie that can make a slurred “turkey lurky” one of its funniest lines deserves a viewing over your holiday weekend.

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