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The Ice Harvest is infectiously existential.

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In life, sometimes you do good things and sometimes you do bad things, but usually the results are the same. That's John Cusack's character Charlie Arglist's outlook on life in the noir/comedy The Ice Harvest. Arglist is a mob lawyer in Wichita Falls, Kansas, proving that even small-time wiseguys need quality representation. When the film opens, Arglist, egged on by his friend, a strip-club owner named Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), has decided to make a play for the big time and rip off his boss, Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), to the tune of $2 million. The two have clearly considered every angle, even scheduling their heist for Christmas Eve when Guerrard will presumably be spending time with his family. Every angle, that is, except for an ice storm that turns the city into, in Vic's words, "an ice hockey rink" and fatefully delays their getaway.

Protagonist trapped in a small town by inclement weather is a road director Harold Ramis has been down before in his 1993 masterpiece Groundhog Day, but that's where any similarity to his previous work ends. For while darkness has always been a part of Ramis' humor, The Ice Harvest is so black that it may even surpass the Coen Brothers' chilliest films. If Groundhog Day revealed a previously unseen depth in Ramis' clowning, this film makes his pessimism seem bottomless. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Ice Harvest is a fairly faithful adaptation of a novel by Scott Phillips, deviating only to lighten up the book's even-more-of-a-downer ending. The pacing is unhurried and natural, like the great crime movies of the 1940s. All of the familiar noir elements are here: the femme fatale with killer gams (Connie Nielsen), the perfect crime that unravels in a flurry of double-crosses and bad luck, and the nonjudgmental treatment of characters who would, in real life, be way too slimy to hang out with on a regular basis but who are fun to visit for 90 minutes or so.

Cusack's trademark sad-sack performance is the glue that holds the rest of the film together as he shambles through a procession of strip joints, convenience stores, and restaurants. Sometimes he bears a passing resemblance to Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, his wink to the audience barely perceptible behind a stoic exterior. He and Thornton have a great time wallowing in the sleaze and bouncing disparaging one-liners off each other. Cusack and Oliver Platt also crackle as the former and current husbands of money-grubbing, two-timing Sarabeth (Justine Bentley), whose severe demeanor explains Platt's show-stealing enthusiasm for liquor.

A film whose most moral action is breaking a woman-beating guitarist's fingers should be on some level rather depressing, but Ramis' existential take on the material is strangely infectious. Life sucks, and all is corruption, he seems to say. We might as well have a laugh about it.

The Ice Harvest

Opened Wednesday, November 23rd

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