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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2005 05:57 pm

Better film through chemistry

Cusask, Thornton screen team saves The Ice Harvest

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In an era in which special effects drive big-budget films and human interaction is regarded as an annoyance, memorable screen teams are few and far between. However, there’s always an exception that proves the rule. Case in point: John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton in The Ice Harvest. Having teamed up once before in the air-traffic-controller film Pushing Tin, these two have reunited for another black comedy that they salvage, thanks to the antagonistic chemistry they generate that helps the movie over its bad patches, which are far too frequent. The locale is Wichita, Kan., and it’s Christmas Eve. Shady lawyer Charlie (Cusack) and his partner in crime, strip-club owner Vic (Thornton) decide to lift a satchel filled with just north of $2 million from mob chieftain Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). The timing for this plan seems perfect, and the boys are ready to skip town for warmer climes when their best-laid plan begins to unravel, as it must. Bad weather, in the form of freezing rain, begins to fall, making travel hazardous, and Charlie ends up saddled with his best friend, Pete (Oliver Platt), who’s on a bender to make him forget his troubles at home, in the person of Charlie’s ex-wife, to whom he’s married. Adding to the turmoil are the sudden appearance of Guerrard’s right-hand man, Roy Gelles (Mike Starr), who delights in shooting people, and overtures made to Charlie by Renata (Connie Nielsen), a strip-club manager Charlie’s had his eye on for years. Though director Harold Ramis could learn a thing or two about building tension, he keeps the film moving at a brisk pace that helps us deal with the fact that we’re going through oft-traveled cinematic territory. Still, there are inspired moments, such as when one of this motley crew ends up trapped in a steamer trunk yet continues to display a degree of optimism that Norman Vincent Peale would admire. Equally effective is Platt, who steals each scene he’s in as his charming yet offensive Pete goes out of his way to embarrass everyone in view, using his drunken state as an excuse to wallow in a poignant display of self-loathing.
In the end, though, the bulk of the film lies on the shoulders of the two leads, and they do not disappoint. Cusack’s nervous-Nellie routine is a perfect contrast to Thornton’s cool underplaying. These two have mastered the ironic tone needed for such material, and The Ice Harvest yields an unexpected bounty because of it.
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