Is there anything seedier than a strip club on Christmas Eve?
Sadder than a man who eats alone that holy night because he hates his wife, and she hates him, and they like it that way?
Bad Santa Nation, unite!
To the small (yet growing) genre of dyspeptic holiday films, where sleaze and murder are as vital as good will and peace on Earth, let us induct Harold Ramis' The Ice Harvest. It begins with a pathetically small patch of Christmas snow being washed away by a cold, hard rain. The rain, and the ice that follows, begins almost immediately after John Cusack delivers his opening speech: The perfect crime is doable, he says. If a criminal can think through every loophole, tie every loose end, tattle to no one, keep his wits - then it's doable.
Cue the metaphorical rain.
Then the thin ice.
That speech is still rattling in
our head when we get the first scene: Cusack and his partner in crime, Billy Bob Thornton, sitting outside of the office they just robbed of $2 million. Cusack seems startled. Thornton seems quietly in awe of so much money in one satchel. Neither, we begin to notice, are in much of a rush. And now the ice is going to keep them in town until sunrise. The rest of the picture, conventionally enough, follows how their perfect crime is preyed on by anxiety, mutual distrust, and greed.
You can't control nature.
Thornton plays a local porn king. Cusack plays a mob lawyer; he's the virtuous one. He has an ex-wife and two children he never sees - and that's what we learn about him, which is enough because he plays The Schmuck. His name is Charlie, and a smoky bombshell with Veronica Lake's cascading hairdo (Connie Nielsen) has her mitts in him. Along with Derailed, that makes the second film noir in three weeks in which an idiot named Charlie hears the siren's song and gets lured too close to the rocks. We know she's trouble because she's a recognizable face, window blinds send shadows across her eyes, Charlie is a moron, and she's nowhere to be found, suspiciously, for the confident, funny middle of the film.
With nowhere to turn until morning, Cusack pals around with his ex-wife's husband, who is sloshed the way the ocean is wet. He's played by Oliver Platt, who remarkably makes us cringe and laugh and feel something like compassion in only a few shrewd scenes. He is a man who can not abide the pleasant surface of even a holiday meal. We've seen this character before. What's new about how Platt plays him is he is completely fine with himself; he does not ask for sympathy or apologize, and we sense he's as much a restless steamroller when he's sober. What do these scenes have to do with the rest of the film? They nudge Cusack on.
If this is a happy family, the film says in its deeply caustic voice, then committing a felony is a genuine, viable alternative.
The Ice Harvest - co-written by Robert Benton (director of Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart) and Richard Russo (Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of Empire Falls and Nobody's Fool) - is a good Christmas film because it is about precisely the things we shove to the back of our heads on that day. And its evocative sense of place is memorable: Picture the loneliest hours of the quietest night of the year, in the sleaziest strip malls of Wichita, with more mud than snow. Ramis' films with Bill Murray (Stripes, Groundhog Day) defined a type of sloven, cynical hero; they're a natural match for the anti-holiday genre. He's not enough of a filmmaker to make an iced-in Kansas feel especially constricting, and I wished the movie were more interested in solid laughs than a routine noir.
But it is true to itself. Christmas With the Kranks, Surviving Christmas, even Bad Santa - they offer a last-minute reprieve. The Ice Harvest is grim and unrelenting to the end; it reminds us that harsh, blatant self-interest is the gift that keeps on giving.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org