Dir. by Harold Ramis - 1 hr. 32 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I'm not much of a Christmas person, generally speaking. And I especially dislike Christmas movies. I've never seen "Miracle on 34th Street" or "It's a Wonderful Life," and Tim Allen's propensity for Christmas-themed movies means that I haven't seen anything he's done since "Galaxy Quest." And usually, at this time of year, literally everything goes green, red, and garnished. The last thing on Earth I want to do is further indulge the season by watching Christmas-related programming of any kind.
It's not entirely fair to peg "The Ice Harvest" as a Christmas movie. What this movie actually is is a neo-noir film (and a pretty sharp one, at that) that happens to be set on Christmas Eve. It's not inconsequential to the plot; pretty much all of the characters here are in a general state of irritation just to be existing in their lives, and the idea that they should all suddenly be jolly and thankful once a year for no good reason is another straw on the camel's back. I can relate to that. But what this is not is a movie filled with all the trite tropes of Christmas movies, or really even a feel-good movie. It's a crime movie that takes place on Christmas, which effectively juxtaposes the general unhappiness of criminal enterprise with the ideal of a happy Christmas.
Mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), with the help of local pornographer Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), decide to actually go through with ripping off local mob boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), to the tune of a little over two million dollars. They do this on Christmas Eve, presumably to delay Guerrard's discovery of the theft, giving them time to get away. Unfortunately, the weather in Wichita is frightful, and they are going to have to wait until the next morning to leave town. This leaves both men in the position of having to fulfill their duties and not tip anyone off that something's going on. This leans more heavily on Arglist, who makes the rounds at local peeler bars that Guerrard controls. One of the owners, Renata (Connie Nielson), figures out what's going on by Arglist's uncharacteristic behavior, and tries to take advantage of his long-standing crush on her to find a way out of Wichita. Before long though, Roy Gelles (Mike Starr) is onto the scheme.
While the crime plot is pretty straight-forward (stay out of harm's way and play it cool until Charlie and Vic can get away safely), the smaller stories are very interesting. Arglist, and his friend (possibly his only friend - he comes across as a very lightly-reformed not-entirely-pleasant guy to be around) Pete (Oliver Platt, an absolute riot here) are both mired, and trapped by the circumstances of their lives. Charlie's ex is Pete's current wife, and there are a lot of tensions between all of the characters. Charlie and Pete also both drink nearly constantly, with vastly different results. Charlie is subdued, the crime story-line means that he's largely playing out his string, seeing a lot of people for the last time one way or another. Pete's a mess, a social disaster, pushing buttons with glee and ferocity for as long as he can stand upright. Charlie offers advice, but lets Pete get into trouble, and then helps dust him off once whatever is going to happen has happened.
There's a sequence in this film that's a glimpse into an entirely different type of film, had anyone cared to take this material in a different direction. Charlie takes Pete to his family's holiday dinner, both soused. Pete is loud and delights it in, while his wife and her parents smirk through it with a sort of stiff-upper-lip condescension. Charlie's children are there; the young daughter just misses her father, the teenage boy is all fury and takes everything the worst possible way. It's a great scene, a ton of information packed into just a few minutes of film. But what makes it great is the little bit that immediately precedes Charlie and Pete's arrival at the dinner. Standing outside on the sidewalk, looking at the happy family (happy possibly because of Pete's absence), Pete admits to Charlie that there was some overlap between their respective relationships with the mother of Charlie's question. Pete invites Charlie to take a swing at him, but instead of doing that, he lowers the boom. Pete asks why he isn't angry, Charlie responds (in the way that only John Cusack can), "Actually, it makes me curious. It makes me wonder who she's fucking now."
It's not necessarily said with malicious intent - it's both a forgiveness and a freeing of Pete. He's in a miserable marriage with no way out, but the awareness that he's in the same boat that Charlie had been in forges a further bond between the two. Also, it's the setting of the fuse for Pete to finally unload on everyone once inside, which is also one of the primary joys of watching Oliver Platt in just about anything he's ever done. I don't know how to factor this into a review of "The Ice Harvest," but watching Platt drunkenly shake a turkey leg at people in an accusatory manner has to be worth something.
The pacing of this movie is unusual, also. It's a ninety-minute movie, so it's not what you'd call long by any means. And the pressure definitely gets to Arglist's character (there are a number of fantastic shots of Cusack looking progressively more disheveled as the movie goes on), but it definitely doesn't feel like things are happening very quickly. That's not to suggest that there's a lack of content, or that the side-plots aren't fulfilling on their own, but "The Ice Harvest" lacks the sort of narrow-minded focus that a lot of noir-ish films have. I suspect that's because there's no time devoted to the actual commission of the theft; it's all aftermath. This movie feels a lot longer than it actually is, which is often a kiss of death, but here I didn't mind it.
I don't want to get into hyperbole, and suggest that this is a must-see movie. But I will say that it's the only good film director Harold Ramis has made since "Groundhog Day." And "The Ice Harvest" isn't as good as that film, but it does have healthy doses of the same kind of dark emotional states that lend some heft to the funnier material. It's a quality movie that I've seen a handful of times now, and not just when I'm trying to find an anti-Christmas Christmas movie.
3.5 / 5 - DVD