Frigid humor: ‘The Ice Harvest’ fast-freezes laughs with too much grittiness, wandering story

“The Ice Harvest”

Focus Features

Directed by Harold Ramis

Written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, based on the novel by Scott Phillips

Starring: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Randy Quaid and Oliver Platt

Rated R/88 minutes

Opens Nov. 23, 2005

Two-and-a-half out of four stars

Set on the frosty, wind-whipped plains of Wichita, Kan., director Harold Ramis’s “The Ice Harvest” presents a bleak scene.

Relentless sheets of December rain wax the city to a glacial sheen, yet the morals of its greedy citizens are more slippery and dark than the frozen streets.

There’s nothing inherently funny about murder and mayhem, so it takes a fine hand to twist the knife and elicit laughs instead of cringes.

Ramis, director of the comparably sunny “Groundhog Day,” and his screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton plunge the knife a little too deep-the brutality overwhelms the humor.

John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, a cynical, mope-stricken lawyer who steals $2 million from his vicious mob boss, Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid, looking like a bloated corpse his character might have left in the river).

Charlie is in cahoots with Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), a sleazy proprietor of the sort of strip club in which the girls look almost as tired as the wheezing libidos in the audience. Vic, with his sober, used-car salesman getup, agrees to hide the money, which may not be in Charlie’s best interest.

Certainly, Renata (Connie Nielsen) does not have Charlie’s best interests in mind. She’s a slinky, Veronica Lake-like blond who not-so-subtly announces her intentions when she perks up at the mention of millions of dollars.

Nielsen plays Renata as if she’s been huffing femme fatale fumes all night long. She releases her pulpy dialogue like writhing ribbons of smoke-it’s a bit on the obvious side, but sexy fun nonetheless.

But “fun” is a curious word when used to describe anything in “The Ice Harvest.” There’s certainly nothing joyful about the irredeemably nasty acts some of these characters commit.

Comedy rears its ugly head on occasion, but it lacks that extra oomph-that extra bit of violent, ghoulish zeal that a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino uses to bring humor to the gallows.

When Charlie’s best-laid plans go to hell in the last 20 minutes, the film abandons all attempts at humor and devolves into the same old fist fights and shotgun blasts with very little flair.

“The Ice Harvest” meanders too much-through its story, through tones, through a library of characters who come and go, most never to be mentioned again. At 88 minutes, perhaps some of the connecting dots were trimmed.

But then again, if the movie were any longer, we might leave the theater longing for the neck-cinching embrace of our own gallows.

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