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May 13, 2006 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | May 13, 2006 |

Before I get to the crux of The Ice Harvest, a small rant, if you will: One of the advantages of bypassing critics’ screenings (and not having to deal with the obnoxiously pushy movie studio public-relations go-between) is the ability to read other critics’ reviews before writing my own. Some of the critics on this site — Mr. Fox, for example — understandably refuse to read other reviews beforehand to avoid having their own pieces influenced by the opinions of David Edelstein, David Denby, or that putz over at EW, Owen Gleiberman. Personally, I like to scan through Rotten Tomatoes before getting started because looking at the other critics’ opinions helps me get up a vitriolic head of steam; I get pissed off, quite frankly, reading 49 blowhards write the same goddamn things over and over each week.

Seriously, how hypocritical is it for a movie critic to bemoan the lack of creativity in films today yet provide absolutely nothing original toward their discussion (there are exceptions, to be sure; personally, I’m a fan of the aforementioned Edelstein, Stephanie Zacharek, and Walter Chaw). Absolutely: The Pacifier sucked, but the puns that critics employed to pan it were no fucking better (only in film criticism can the use of puns be considered a goddamn art form). Anyone who has read more than five mainstream reviews is no doubt familiar with the critics’ lexicon, which seems limited to the same 10 words or phrases: “hodgepodge,” “_______ in spades,” “worthy addition,” “dud,” roller coaster analogies, “family-friendly fare,” “pastiche,” “inspiring,” “triumph,” and (the most detestable of all) “too cute by half.” What the hell does that even mean, too cute by half? Is it any wonder that movie critics are viewed with the same repulsion as Hollywood executives? How the hell can we expect better from the movie industry if we, as movie critics, can offer no more than the same bland, formulaic USA Today brand of elementary-level pretentious bullshit?

Here is my very own, self-destructive Jerry-Maguire-style mission statement, which will no doubt ensure that I never receive admission into any of the critics’ societies: Before you cast aspersions on the bleak state of Hollywood, Mr. and Mrs. Movie Reviewer, elevate your own efforts past what you learned in your high school yearbook classes; simple plot regurgitation, a thesaurus, the overuse of puns, and some mild crankiness no longer cut it. If you must decry the corporate homogenization and audience pandering of studio films, then please be prepared to provide your readers with something better. If movie criticism is a dying profession, then you killed it. Repent, assholes.

Alas: The Ice Harvest.

If you’ve already read the source material — a grit-stained, pulpy, one-sitting novel by Scott Phillips — then you probably already know that the movie trailers advertising The Ice Harvest are terribly misleading. The film is not a zany, goofball, pratfalling holiday crime caper, as the PR executives would have you believe. In fact, the film — as directed by Harold Ramis — is a darkly existential, noirish black comedy, in the blackest sense of the word. In short, The Ice Harvest introduces strip clubs, public drunkenness, and sadistic violence to the celebration of “God’s Birthday”; indeed, the tone of the film is suggested by Charlie Arglist’s (John Cusack) pronouncement in the opening sequence: “Ho Ho Fucking Ho.”

The narrative meanderingly follows Arglist, a divorced Wichita Falls mob lawyer who — with the assistance of his pornographer pal, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton doing his best Billy Bob Thornton caricature) — steals $2.1 million from his mafia boss on Christmas Eve with the intention of making off with it overnight. Expectedly, the “perfect crime” never is, as The Ice Harvest turns into A Simple Plan very quickly; apparently, no one can be satisfied with splitting large sums of money anymore — somebody has to have it all, even if that means somebody else has to lose a finger or get thrown to the bottom of the lake for that to happen.

The Ice Harvest, which was adapted for the screen by one of the finest novelists of the last twenty years, Richard Russo (Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool), hews closely to Phillips’ novel, though it’s been updated into the present and a few minor details have been changed. It’s an ideal match, really, to have Russo — the master of small-town Americana — adapt; he’s got a knack for likeably sleazy, hard-life people, and Billy Bob Thornton; the haggard, older John Cusack; and Connie Nielson (the poor man’s Diane Lane) are well suited to Russo’s brand of character and the sort of dry exchanges exemplified by this one, in which Vic is discussing his wife: “She’s on the Subway diet, which means she has a couple of footlongs for lunch and a couple more for supper and shops for her wardrobe at a tent store.”

Yet, while Ramis’ version of The Ice Harvest works to some extent, it fails to fully capture the punch line to Phillips’ style of existentialism. There is a story within the story in both the book and the movie that acts as the central metaphor: In it, Arglist is telling his overly inebriated friend (played amusingly by Oliver Platt) about the futility of regret, illustrated in the lives of his father and his father’s identical twin brother. His father, who drank in moderation, never smoked, and voted in every election (even the ones that weren’t for president) died of a massive heart attack when he was 54; his uncle, on the other hand, lived a different kind of life. He spent some time in jail, won a lot of money in poker and lost it in the same way, and basically lived the life of a derelict, yet died the day after his father in a car accident. In other words, what’s the point of regret; assuming there is no afterlife, morality is a meaningless precept, probably created by the greeting card industry to sell more get well cards, right?

Unfortunately, Ramis — probably with more than just a small push from Universal Studios — dilutes Phillips’ central theme; he takes the despair away from existential despair. So, in analogical terms, in the story above, the derelict uncle — instead of dying in an unexpected car crash — is merely hobbled, relegated to a wheelchair, and forced to sit through Tim Allen Christmas movies for the rest of his life. The ending that Ramis tacks on doesn’t exactly achieve the level of despair that Phillips created in his novel, but I’m sure test audiences love those Tim Allen movies, so there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t love Ramis’ interpretation of The Ice Harvest. As Billy Bob Thornton’s character declares, “Only morons are nice on Christmas. And a lot of people are morons.”

And, apparently, they make up a large part of test audiences.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

The Ice Harvest / Dustin Rowles

Film | May 13, 2006 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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