I was planning to hammer this one out quickly today so that I could try and get a full night’s sleep for a change. Damn you Wikipedia (and my lack of self-control).
Comedy noir? Should be funnier.
It is Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas. Local mob lawyer Charlie Arglist has been skimming from his boss, and now he and his partner in crime, Vic Cavanaugh, are planning to skip town with the accumulated loot. But Wichita is frozen over, and the boys will have to wait until morning to make their getaway, if they can stay out of trouble until then.
The Ice Harvest is director Harold (Groundhog Day) Ramis shifting from comedy to film noir. While it boasts a top-drawer cast and hits all the story beats you would expect it to, it is unfortunately less than the sum of its parts. The film is structured like a classic noir tale but it felt to me like Ramis was constantly looking for the laugh that just wasn’t there, or sticking so rigidly to the staples of the genre that he didn’t give the story or the characters room to breathe.
As played by John Cusack, Charlie Arglist is probably the world’s nicest mob lawyer, more of a rumpled schlub than the flinty-eyed ruthless bastard you might expect from his job title. But maybe that’s why he’s still in Wichita. His best friend is Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt) who is currently separated from Charlie’s own ex-wife. Billy Bob Thornton plays the devious Cavanaugh, reuniting with Cusack after their 1999 air traffic controller comedy/drama Pushing Tin (which you should try to track down if you haven’t seen it). Connie Nielsen could be channelling Lana Turner as Renata, the manager of one of Wichita’s apparently multitudinous strip clubs. She’s got the look, the talk, everything; pretty much your perfect femme fatale, wrapping Charlie around her little finger. She’s such a classic femme fatale in fact, there are moments when it almost feels like she’s in the wrong movie. Renata is a great character but I think she’d be more at home in forties LA than present day Kansas.
The script is an adaptation of the first novel by Wichita native Scott Phillips. It is apparently a black comedy in the noir mould, but Richard Russo and Robert Benton’s screenplay seems to focus on the noir to the detriment of the comedy. There are a few moments of humour – especially whenever Renata’s bartender Sidney is on screen – but the general tone veers towards awkward pastiche a bit too often for my tastes.
The Ice Harvest is hampered by its over-reliance on the stock genre archetypes. If the script or direction had played things a bit more fast and loose it could have been much more fun. As it is, it’s ultimately a mild disappointment that is saved from late-night cable hell by Cusack’s world-weary charm and his interplay with Platt, Thornton and Nielsen. If you’re a noir fan, it is maybe worth a watch but you’ll see all the twists coming. If you’re not a noir fan, this won’t change your mind.