"Thin Ice," starring Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup and Alan Arkin, is a gritty little comedy of the blackest sort about a whacked-out scam that goes down during a frigid Wisconsin winter, where the wind off the lake is cold and the cons are colder still. If you can get past the rough patches — a slightly sluggish start and a coda that feels like one punch line too many — there is some sinister fun to be had in watching Kinnear skating toward disaster on ice that is very thin indeed.
Written by the Sprecher sister act — Jill and Karen — with Jill also directing, this is a movie about small mistakes and big egos, the biggest being Mickey Prohaska (Kinnear), a local insurance agent who's spent years slipping around the ethical edges thanks to his slick spiel. All he wants is to score enough to escape to warmer climes and maybe win back his wife (Lea Thompson) when the con of a lifetime falls into his lap.
The golden goose in this particular goose chase is an old violin recently inherited by an aging and addled Gorvy Hauer (Arkin). The instrument might have value, with an appraiser/restorer (Bob Balaban) trying to track down its pedigree. Mickey finds out about the violin when his newly recruited associate, Bob Egan (an excellent David Harbour), sells Gorvy a homeowner's policy. Bob is a salt-of-the-earth guy so helpful that he persuades Gorvy to put in an alarm system.
Mickey never takes his eyes off the prize, but getting it will require considerable conning and cunning if he has any hope of outwitting Gorvy, Bob and that a brand new alarm system Randy (Billy Crudup) put in. The one thing Mickey has never run out of is hope. He has, however, run out of luck, with a series of complications that include the slightly unhinged Randy as an unwanted partner in crime. "Fargo"-esque in its outlook, "Thin Ice" toys with all the ways greed and avarice can trip up someone like Mickey. There are ironies aplenty for him to weather, to say nothing of a few dicey, desperate hours on a frozen lake.
The Sprechers, whose last film was 2002's festival favorite, "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," which also featured Arkin, are fond of ensemble pieces with lots of interlocking action. They take time to mine the psychological and the physical world the characters have been dropped into. For "Thin Ice," the filmmakers have gone back to familiar turf (Jill graduated from the University of Wisconsin) and captured the sensibility of small-town life there with its limitless horizons and limited opportunities. The bitter winter is a good staging ground for delivering this bitter pill, with their "Thirteen Conversations" cinematographer Dick Pope ("The Illusionist") helping them make the most of the icy vistas.
A perpetually bundled-up Arkin looks to be having a grand time letting Gorvy's mind flounder. Crudup brings a real fervor to his psychosis, Balaban a nervous industry to his appraiser, indeed just about everyone and the dog (there really is a dog) in this rangy cast take a nice spin on the ice.
The mischief and the mayhem hang on Mickey's growing unease. Which makes it a good fit for Kinnear, whose characters often harbor a nagging sense that something is terribly wrong stretching back to "As Good as It Gets" in 1997 through 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine" and beyond. He's at it again in "Thin Ice," brow furrowed, shoulders slumping, voice shifting between desperation and consternation. Not quite as good as it gets, but close.
MPAA rating: R for language and brief violence and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: In selected theaters