U.S. Release Date: November 23, 2005
Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Harold Ramis
Writer: Robert Benton
Producer: Albert Berger, Glenn Williamson (executive producer), Ron Yerxa
Cast: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt, Randy Quaid
Running Time: 1 hour and 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (violence, language and sexuality/nudity)

A Stylish, Cynical Christmas in Kansas
by Scott Holleran

Based on the novel by Scott Phillips, The Ice Harvest is more cynical than genuinely dark and—for those up to here in Christmas cheer and willing to indulge a very bad mood—director Harold Ramis' collaboration with writers Richard Russo and Robert Benton glides toward its anti-romantic conclusions.

Set in cow town Wichita and peopled with a cast of sourpusses—John Cusack, Oliver Platt, Randy Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton—who contrast the goody two-shoes of Christmas in Kansas, this is a sort of reverse season's greeting, with nasty but otherwise good people trying to stake a claim on happiness before they have to face the reality that they are rotten to the core. It is that type of movie.

Cusack portrays an incredibly lousy divorced dad and small-time mob lawyer who is drawn by sleazy Thornton (does he ever play anything else?) into embezzling over two million dollars from Quaid's Kansas City big shot. Though it doesn't exactly ring true, the screenplay has Cusack spending the rest of Christmas Eve doubting his choice to explicitly become a criminal while trying to make amends—with his family, with his best friend (Platt as a lush married to Cusack's ex) and with the strippers at the bar where he hangs out—and maybe, just maybe, making a clean break with a femme fatale (Connie Nielsen) who could melt a guy with one look.

The dialogue crackles and the mood is as cold as a whistling winter wind, with Cusack scrambling around in his foreign import, covering his tracks, meeting with Thornton and desperately trying to avoid suspicion. Cusack ducks in and out of the strip club, where a hit man sniffs around, and Nielsen's cool customer, Renata, slogs around like Veronica Lake with a bad hangover. When Platt's big, dumb and drunk buddy starts making too much noise, you just know something is about to pop, and you can probably see it coming, though don't be surprised if you can't.

The fun's in the doing—it is dastardly and a little raunchy at no one's expense—and the slow-paced, self-justifying exercise in cynical humor takes an unexpected turn around the time somebody gets knocked off, with an inevitable confrontation that puts the Champagne back on ice. But The Ice Harvest is down and dirty, which won't win points from the politically correct crowd, and that makes it almost likeable.

What it reaps is too self-aware—bad mood movies like this usually are—and it is neither cynical enough to please the Bad Santa bunch (thank God) nor cunning enough to cuddle up to, and the wham-bam twist toward the end is interesting chiefly for its execution, not for its content. With some great lines from Platt when he's drunk, The Ice Harvest doesn't get away with it, but it nearly puts being bad in style.

Buy on DVD
DVD Notes
Equipped with more than one might expect, including participation from virtually everyone involved in making the movie, a single disc DVD edition of The Ice Harvest packs in features, alternate endings and a director's commentary.

Those alternate endings are pretty bleak in what's already very cold-hearted, and director Harold Ramis explains why he opted for the current, more hopeful ending, finding the silver lining realistic enough in a world where, as he states in the commentary, as long as you're alive, you have the power to change and do better. That's as cheery as it gets in the bonus bits. Elsewhere, Ramis embraces the material for its presumably gritty existentialism.

The rest of the stuff is filled with features like Cracking the Story, which has writers Robert Benton and Richard Russo saddling up to a bar tended by novelist Scott Phillips as the trio engage in a rare mens' writers' bar talk that's as funny as it is sharp. Mr. Benton doesn't say much, but he does reveal that the idea for the movie was inspired by someone at the New York Times (hardly a good sign) while Russo offers insights on translating novels into movies and the role of men in today's society.

Other highlights include an anatomy of the riveting ice break scene and thoughts from Cusack, Nielsen, Thornton and the producers. Finally, it falls to Ramis to summarize the movie's mixed philosophy: "life is meaningless, we're all going to die, we're alone in the universe, and we're responsible for what we do." It's obvious from the afterthoughts on this disc that no one really believes life is pointless, which reminds us that a cynic is just an idealist who's been burned—or frostbitten.

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