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Photograph by Chuck Hodes

Really Bad Santas: Oliver Pltt (left) and John Cusack go for slapstick laughs in 'The Ice Harvest.'

Chill Thrill

'The Ice Harvest' skates on very thin ice with anti-holiday bad cheer

By Richard von Busack

MATCHING middle-aged wrath with middle-of-nowhere locations, The Ice Harvest tries to serve up something sour to counteract the holiday-season sweetness. The action unfolds in Wichita during a Christmas Eve ice storm. Billy Bob Thornton plays a midlevel strip-club owner named Vic, who is about to be put out of business by Christian political crusaders. In search of a last big score, he yokes himself to an untrustworthy partner named Charlie (as in "Charlie Brown," and played by John Cusack). Charlie is full of tense misery, being a local Mafia lawyer who has just filched $2 million from his employers, with the usual stacks of hundreds in the traditional leather satchel.

All the two have to do is sit tight during an ice storm and wait for the driving conditions to be right. That dawn, they will be in Kansas City, where each will take a separate plane to some torrid spot in the citrus belt. Naturally, the simple plan is complicated by mutual greed, not to mention femme fatale pressure from Renata (Connie Nielsen trying to be Lauren Bacall by glazing her lower lip with Revlon and husking her voice).

How well it will go is obvious from the opening shot, with Cusack making a stuck-pig face as he stands in a frozen pasture: "People always say that there's no such thing as the perfect crime," he voice-overs. No, it just seems like there's no such thing as the perfect crime movie, at least since color cinematography was introduced.

Thornton's Sterling Haydenism can't be argued with. He knows the drill, and he ought to, since he's done it before. And Cusack is similarly irreplaceable, playing a jittery squirrel, self-medicating his nerves with cocktails. The script is a collaboration—a fun-and-games collaboration, I hope—by Robert Benton and Richard Russo. It rises to moments that resemble wit. Humor almost surfaces when the comic-relief drunk Oliver Platt disturbs a Norman Rockwellish Christmas dinner or sexually harasses a barmaid by telling her she's going to be in his dreams that night, "and except for that fish necklace, you're going to be one naked little Christian."

It must have looked great on paper, but by the time Platt has dropped his pants for a laugh, it's apparent that director Harold Ramis has no idea what to do with The Ice Harvest. At times, he thinks it should be a foul Laurel and Hardy pastiche. Ramis restages the famous L&H bit of the duo moving a piano over a swinging bridge—here it's a trunkload of hit men crossing a decaying wharf over a frozen lake. At other times, Ramis tries to be tough as nails, with shooting matches used to supplement knee-in-the-crotch-level slapstick.

There is a rationale for anti-holiday programming. Thornton's Bad Santa is a perfect example. But when such movies fail, they're like the experience of going to a bar on Christmas by yourself. The thrill of sacrilege soon fades, and the air of gloom descends and won't lift.

The Ice Harvest (R; 88 min.), directed by Harold Ramis, written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, based on the novel by Scott Phillips, photographed by Alar Kivilo and starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, plays valleywide.

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From the November 23-29, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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