“The Ice Harvest” could also be called “The Grifters in a Simple Plan” a dark comedy of theft, betrayal and murder whose frosty felons John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton seem like castaways from the actors’ earlier crime romps.
They play very different characters here — Cusack a jumpy embezzler rather than the detached con man of “The Grifters,” Thornton a sleazy desperado instead of the trusting village idiot of “A Simple Plan.”
Yet “The Ice Harvest” comes off as an overly familiar caper whose characters are unlikable and often uninteresting, especially stacked up against the black-hearted but intriguing crooks the two stars previously played (Cusack’s hit man in “Grosse Pointe Blank” and Thornton’s grinch in “Bad Santa” also were far more watchable outlaws).
Nearly all the key players in “The Ice Harvest” have hearts of strychnine and come off as superficial, greedy scum too dumb to see what’s obvious to the audience — that they have only their own interests in mind and their partners in crime are expendable.
Co-star Oliver Platt salvages the movie at times and fleetingly humanizes Cusack’s character, their interactions providing comic highlights and a welcome respite from the uninvolving nastiness that saturates the rest of the film.
Like Cusack and Thornton, director Harold Ramis has pulled off better cinematic crime jobs with “Analyze This” and even its tepid sequel. Ramis does manage to bring “The Ice Harvest” in briskly at under 90 minutes, though the story is so miserly it barely rates that short running time.
The action plays out on Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kan. Amiably meek Charlie Arglist (Cusack), an attorney for local mobsters, and brazen associate Vic Cavanaugh (Thornton) have just ripped off $2 million from the town’s crime lord (Randy Quaid). Charlie and Vic plan to play it cool for the evening, then skip town on Christmas Day.
But Charlie can’t quite extricate himself quietly from past associations, including his friendship with the lovably boozy Pete Van Heuten (Platt) and his unrequited love for Renata (Connie Nielsen), the beauty who runs a strip club where Charlie hangs out.
Throughout an evening of freezing rain that turns the streets to glass, Charlie skids about in drunken encounters with Vic, Renata, Pete, gangsters, bartenders and strangely supportive cops on the beat.
Charlie and Vic’s inept confrontation with a mob enforcer (Mike Starr) provides some solid laughs, though the scenario drags on too long.
Wearing his characteristic stone face, the low-key Cusack is overshadowed by Thornton’s gleeful bluster, a dynamic not unlike the one the actors forged in their previous collaboration on “Pushing Tin.”
Here, neither character has much depth, Thornton doing his grinning slimeball routine on autopilot, Cusack playing a passive puppy dog inexplicably running with wolves.
Working from Scott Phillips’ novel, screenwriters Robert Benton and Richard Russo (previous collaborators on “Twilight” and “Nobody’s Fool,” the latter adapted from Russo’s novel) offer no satisfying insights into how Cusack’s weak-kneed Charlie fell in with thugs in the first place, let alone why he would risk stealing their money.
Charlie comes alive only opposite Platt’s blowzy, buffoonish Pete, now married to Charlie’s ice queen of an ex-wife and regretting every minute of it. Platt is the king of thieves in “The Ice Harvest,” stealing every moment he’s on screen.