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Not a good Harvest this year, I’m afraid.

June 26, 2006

I didn’t realize this until I read his IMDB profile, but Harold Ramis, the director of The Ice Harvest, has written or directed some of the best non-spoof comedies of the last 30 years: Animal House, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. I’ll take that résumé against Woody Allen’s or Mel Brooks’ any day of the week.

In many ways, his movies–especially Animal House and Ghostbusters–have served as the template for the modern mainstream comedy film: a wise-cracking protagonist, usually accompanied by a ragtag group of sidekicks, goes on an absurd quest, gets the girl and is involved in a ludicrous spectacle of a climax. Usually, although not always, the third reel is not nearly as funny as the first two, as the demands of tying up an outrageous plot leave little time for jokes.

The critics have deridden this formula–and I admit that in its lesser forms, like most Adam Sandler movies, I find it tiring–but it’s so common now that a comedy without this framework, like Ramis’ own masterwork Groundhog Day, seems downright revolutionary. And because the laughs are so good in the first two-thirds, and we find the wiseacre hero so endearing, we’re willing to let the film coast through the denouement with nary a chuckle.

This formula is again on display in The Ice Harvest, only there’s one problem: The Ice Harvest is a noir, not a comedy. And unlike comedies, good noirs need to do in the third act what they do in the first two acts, only better. The vision of humanity needs to get darker, the twists need to get twistier and the humor needs to gets more shocking. Indeed, the endings of noirs–The Usual Suspects, for example–are often the best part. The Ice Harvest, unfortunately, is at its most interesting in the first half-hour and seems to slowly thaw as the story progresses.

On the surface, The Ice Harvest has all the makings of a tasty little noir like The Last Seduction or A Simple Plan. It’s got two lead actors, Jon Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, who can effortlessly slide between humor and pathos. Its setting, a rainy Christmas eve in Wichita, Kansas, is suitably depressing. And it’s got a promising standard-issue noir premise: two guys steal $2 million from a mob boss. (Like Westerns, the more familiar the set-up for a noir is, the better.)

Cusack’s character, Charlie Arglist, is the protagonist, which means he’s the least despicable of the film’s many degenerates. He’s a mob lawyer and a shitty father, but at least he values loyalty. Vic Cavanaugh (Thornton, who can do sleazy characters like this in a coma) possesses not the faintest scent of morality; he has no hesitation about splitting town and leaving his obese wife forever. A few shades lighter on the spectrum of human debauchery is Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt), an alcoholic architect who’s doing everything he can to destroy his marriage to Chris’ ex-wife. Also joining in the fun is the woman Chris pines for, Renata, a strip-club owner played by Connie Nielsen with such breathy incompetence that she’s more femme banal than femme fatale.

So far, so good enough. In the opening scenes, the screenplay, by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, based on the novel by Scott Phillips, beautifully plays off the comic tension between Charlie, who’s anxiety-ridden over the possibility of getting caught, and Vic, who’s so hopeless about his life that he doesn’t seem to give a shit one way or the other. There’s a wonderfully ironic scene right after they’ve committed the crime where Vic and Charlie argue over who’s going to hold onto the bag of cash–only to overcompensate for their complete lack of trust in each other, each says the other guy really should take it.

Charlie has the kind of great bad luck moments that noirs have trained us to expect; his cellphone breaks on a slip on the ice, his car spins out of control and draws the attention of a police cruiser, Pete pukes in his passenger seat after a night of self-annihilation by inebriation. Charlie says to Pete, “An entire parking lot and you had to puke in my car?”

But when The Ice Harvest starts migrating away from its comic premise and into the actual plot, which is necessarily darker, the plot holes start to grow and the twists, well, they never materialize. A key plot point revolves around Vic stuffing the mob boss’ henchman into a metal trunk. Leaving aside the practical difficulties of fitting a six-foot-tall man into a three-foot-long trunk, Vic’s reason for leaving the henchman alive is never adequately explained. It makes for some funny moments, like when the henchman tells Charlie he’s going to kill him, and then asks Charlie to free him. “You just said you’d kill me. Why should I free you?” Charlie asks. “I didn’t mean it,” he responds.

But the scene also makes not a lick of sense, as we soon learn that Vic has already killed somebody else that night. If the motive is torture, I don’t buy it; everything we’ve learned about Vic up to this point demonstrates that he’s amoral, not immoral. He’s simply too practical about his own preservation to waste time drawing out his enemy’s death.

The narrative gets more incredible (in the worst sense of the word) from there. The film’s finale takes place at the strip club that Renata manages. When Charlie arrives to pick her up so they can leave Wichita with the money, he sees the mob boss’ car out front. But he walks in anyway. I wasn’t sure what to make of it: Does he have a deathwish? Does he love Renata so much that he wants to save her? Has he now become a hero? The movie wants us to believe the answer is (B) he loves Renata so much, which is fine, but why wouldn’t he take some precautions like, I don’t know, not walking in the front door unarmed?

When Charlie enters Renata’s office, he finds her tied to her chair. Luckily for them, the mob boss, Bill Guerrard (played by Randy Quaid, doing a lackluster J.T. Walsh impression), is in the can. To buy time so Charlie can get the shotgun under the bar, Renata convinces Guerrard to relax for a nice blow job. Umm, dude, you tied her to a chair because you didn’t trust her, remember?

Then, after Charlie fails to kill Guerrard, Guerrard not only doesn’t immediately kill Charlie but he decides to take his sweet-ass time before killing Renata. Unsurprisingly, this buys enough time for Charlie to find his courage, get off the floor, grab the gun and blow Guerrard’s head off. That’s not an ending; that’s a screenwriter’s cry for help. Both Benton (who co-wrote Superman and Bonnie and Clyde) and Russo (who wrote HBO’s Empire Falls) should know better. Perhaps Benton’s and Russo’s friends should stage an intervention and have them take a personal inventory of their missteps. “Hi, my name is Robert Benton, and I’ve been a hack for seven years…”

The movie isn’t bad really, only mediocre, which is worse–at least really bad movies are entertaining. Ramis has a rare talent–translating the comic gifts of SNL stars to the big screen–and maybe The Ice Harvest’s failure will lead him to return to his roots. There hasn’t been a decent comedy starring an SNL castmember since Anchorman in 2004; it’s about time for another.

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