Billy Bob Thornton must be itching for a Bill O'Reilly boycott.
Yes, 'tis the season, when droll actors shun applique sweaters and play Jesus' birthday for irony.
In Harold Ramis' latest, Thornton again is a yuletide crook, this time named Vic and in cahoots with John Cusack's Charlie Arglist, a lawyer to Wichita's richest bums and mobsters. Together, they embezzle a cool $2 million from Kansas kingpin Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid) and will make a clean getaway if they can get through the next 12 hours of ice and sleet the 12 hours of Christmas Eve.
Despite the trailers with Thornton's mug set to the pa-rum-pum-pum-puming of "The Little Drummer Boy" "The Ice Harvest" is not "Bad Santa" redux. It has comic moments primarily from Oliver Platt, in fine drunken stupor but Ramis' tiptoe into film noir isn't really a comedy. (And Thornton's really not the star Cusack is.)
Charlie and Vic spend most of the 12 hours apart, trying, as the calmer, elder Vic advises, to "act normal." Normal to Charlie means spending Christmas Eve drinking at the Sweet Cage, the Teaze-O-Rama and the Velvet Touch all fine stripper establishments, the former run by femme fatale Renata (Connie Nielsen), a dirty blondJessica Rabbit with an indefinable accent, low-cut cami and high-slit pencil skirt. Charlie can't take his eyes off her.
So instead of laying low at the Cage, Charlie ends up doing Renata a few dangerous favors, namely saving her from a councilman's "Footloose"-like mission to ban nude dancing in Wichita. And in the process runs into a mobster (who may or may not know about the two mill), some cops (who may or may not know how much alcohol Charlie has consumed) and Platt's Pete, an old friend and the new husband of Charlie's ex-wife (who definitely does not know how to hold his liquor).
This all wanders and meanders and roams until all of a sudden "The Ice Harvest" becomes a very different movie: a thriller! A thriller with nothing to figure out! Instead of building suspense and dropping clues, Ramis uses the last part of his film to spoon-feed us suspicions until he just comes out and says it: This is the bad guy, 'cause I say so.
Then the lights come up. And you think. And you think some more. And you think there's nothing to think about, because the Big Answer is so arbitrary. And why again does the movie have to be set over Christmas, other than to make sure we all know that mobsters in Kansas don't care much for peace and joy?
This is unlike Richard Russo and Robert Benton, both accomplished writers: Russo's a Pulitzer Prize winner for "Empire Falls" and Benton's resume ain't too shabby either, with "Bonnie and Clyde," "Places in the Heart," "What's Up, Doc?" and "Kramer vs. Kramer."
The screwy story construction and jumbled tone could be an editing issue, could be a writing issue, but when Russo and Benton lose the affected style and try for more natural dialogue, it works, especially between Pete and Charlie, two washed-up guys who deal with regret in very different ways.
Scenes, on their own, also work. As do performances. Nielsen's over-the-top, stylized take on bombshell Renata could be really fabulous in another movie, but here she feels like a castaway from "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." Cusack's bloated face and sad eyes only partially obscured by an intentionally numb delivery make him the perfect guy to drink all night but never get drunk, which is just what Charlie does.
And despite all that hilly terrain we're so famous for, Waukegan doubles well for the cold, flat nothingness of the film's imagined Wichita.
But Ramis is out of his depth here, lost when it comes to building tension sexual and otherwise and unsure how to combine all the elements and weave in the comedy. (Going dark doesn't just mean shooting at night, Harry.) Benton even provided Ramis with a ready-made through-line, a sentence that we first see scrawled on the Sweet Cage's bathroom wall: "As Wichita falls, so falls Wichita Falls."
But, like most else here, that line is apropos of nothing, and only when it appeared again at the end of the film did I realize that Ramis thought I'd be wondering about the scrawler the whole time.
As for Thornton, he pulls off his incredibly unchallenging end of the bargain, which is to be sleazy and suspicious and remind us all again that holiday cheer is bunk.
I think we've got it now, thanks.
'The Ice Harvest'
Directed by Harold Ramis; written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton; photographed by Alar Kivilo; edited by Lee Percy; production designed by Patrizia von Brandenstein; music by David Kitay; produced by Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. A Focus Features release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:28. MPAA rating: R (violence, language and sexuality/nudity).
Charlie - John Cusack
Vic - Billy Bob Thornton
Renata - Connie Nielsen
Pete - Oliver Platt
Bill Guerrard - Randy Quaid