“The Ice Harvest”: Only morons are nice on Christmas

santa and cusack

Welcome to my 12 Days of Christmas series! I thought I’d introduce some of my favorite anti-Christmas-spirit movies and a few proper Christmassy ones to celebrate what is actually my favorite holiday. (Food, pretty lights, and it lasts practically all month! It’s really just the, um, people I don’t like much.)

“The Ice Harvest” (2005) is not quite a neo-noir, though it sounds like its source material, a novel of the same name, is. It’s Christmas Eve and Wichita mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) is musing on the perfect crime. “It’s really all about character,” he tells us. “Of course, if I had any character, I wouldn’t have stolen $2 million from my boss.” Fair point.

A Festive Christmas Eve

That said, Charlie has more character than most of the other entertaining degenerates to whom the dearly departed Harold Ramis introduces us. For example, his partner in crime (well, this particular crime) is the owner of the Tease-O-Rama strip-club, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton). The woman Charlie has had his eye on, Renata (Connie Nielsen), also a strip club owner (“The Sweet Cage”), is the resident femme fatale. His best friend is the usually lascivious and perpetually drunk Pete (Oliver Platt). Pete was the occasion for Charlie’s divorce and has married Charlie’s ex-wife. Fortunately, Charlie doesn’t seem to hold a grudge, and although Pete isn’t having a very good time, Platt certainly is.

After verbally harassing an attractive bartender after closing time, Pete gets forcibly dragged out by the bartender’s boyfriend. Pete absolutely has it coming, but you kinda feel bad for him after he struggles into a standing position and says, “That was unpleasant. I think I scraped my tummy.” (For the record, fellas, this is definitely one of those situations where the onus was on the harasser’s buddy to intervene. Charlie does tell Pete to “shut the fuck up,” but as that has no effect, he should have been the one to drag Pete out. Instead, he watches with a sadly amused expression while his gross friend tells the bartender—and her boyfriend—in some detail about what she will be wearing in his dream later [spoiler alert: nothing]. Then again, not doing anything is kind of central to Charlie’s character. But you get my point.)

pete at the barCusack’s Charlie is an older cousin to Martin Q. Blank in “Grosse Pointe Blank”—a basically decent bad guy who’s at a crossroads. There are the usual post-heist questions: Will he escape with the money? Will the sexy-yet-untrustworthy woman run away with him—or kill him? Or will Charlie’s mob boss—a disappointingly restrained Randy Quaid—find him and kill him?

But the real question is what sort of person Charlie will decide to be. Charlie had the idea for the heist, but, like many a noir protagonist, he is not naturally a man of action. Charlie has the brains; Vic has the balls. Will Charlie continue to let (increasingly unpleasant) things happen to him, or will he commit himself to a course of action? And, if he does, given that chances are good that will mean killing somebody, what kind of person will he be then?

Yes, You Should Watch It

Cusack and Thornton are fun to watch, as always, and character actor Ned Bellamy is great as Sidney, the kind bartender/bouncer with an anger management problem. A pleasant surprise was T. J. Jagodowski as the police officer who seems to be tailing Charlie all night, inevitably turning up at a series of low points (Charlie’s drinking and driving, vomiting off a bridge and then smacking his head on one of those metal road signs, and…other stuff). Jagodowski is, unfortunately, probably most recognizable for the series of insufferable Sonic ads in which he plays a gratuitously irritating moron who makes poor dietary choices.

Novelist Richard Russo co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Benton, and it’s the script that makes the film so entertaining. The script is not only funny but helps create real characters out of Charlie, Vic, and poor, sozzled Pete. Deep in the film, Charlie “borrows” his ex-wife’s (and Pete’s wife’s) Mercedes-Benz, because “for some reason” [cough, Pete] his car is covered in vomit. He then meets up with Vic and they proceed to argue about whose car will best accommodate the foot locker into which Vic has stuffed the mob boss’s hit man. “One night driving a Mercedes, already you’re an asshole,” Vic observes.

As if that all weren’t enough, towards the end of the film, there’s also a gratifying nod to the end of my favorite film noir, “Double Indemnity” (1944). “The Ice Harvest” is definitely worth checking out. I’m going to hunt down a copy of Scott Phillips’s original book, too.

cusack and thornton

“The Ice Harvest” is available for rental on Amazon and by disc on Netflix.

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