The Ice Harvest

(2005) ** 1/2 R
88 min. Focus Features. Director: Harold Ramis. Cast: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt, Randy Quaid.

In a crowded holiday season, why should you see The Ice Harvest? Well, perhaps you shouldn't. It's nihilistic, misogynistic, brutal, and derivative. But it's also written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton (from the novel by Scott Phillips), which means that it's zesty enough to make the ol' noir two-step seem worthwhile. Add efficient direction by Harold Ramis and a likeable cast headed by John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton and The Ice Harvest starts to look pretty good.

Cusack and Thornton play Charlie Arglist and Vic Cavanaugh, partners in the theft of $2 million from a Wichita mobster. In voice-over narration, Charlie unconvincingly professes his belief in the "perfect crime," but also confesses his fatal lack of personal character. Over one long night, Charlie and Vic must dodge goons and decide whether or not to trust each other or local femme fatale Renata, played with conviction by Connie Nielsen.

The characters are mostly hateful, with the exception of Charlie's dubious pal Pete (Oliver Platt), a sodden lawyer. The hell-bent Platt's hilariously sloppy male bonding with the constantly emasculated Cusack offers a sad alternative to inconstant women. "This country—all that's left for men is money and pussy," Pete slurs. Meanwhile, Renata and Randy Quaid's pissed-off mobster separately cast aspersions on Charlie's guts and balls, with one calling him "nice" then "nothing" in the same breath. Charlie's long, dark night of the soul gets characterized as his "defining moment," and he slowly gathers the chutzpah to define that moment on his own terms.

The third act's half-assed replay of Blood Simple is a big disappointment, but Cusack and Thornton's adherence to their established comic personas, while unambitious, delivers all the tattered comfort of a old shoe. As such, The Ice Harvest's nastily entertaining diversions may be just the ticket to banish visions of shopping malls from dancing in weary heads.

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