Adapted from the novel by Scott Philips, The Ice Harvest was written for the screen by the unlikely duo of Robert Benton and Richard Russo, neither of whom would have been immediate suspects for producing material of this kind. Throughout his distinguished career as a filmmaker, Benton has concentrated on drama with clear social and political implications. His most recent directing effort was The Human Stain, in which Anthony Hopkins starred as a black man who has passed for white his entire life. Benton is also the writer/director of such honored films as Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart and Nobody's Fool, which he adapted from a Russo novel. Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for his portrait of a small, working-class town in Empire Falls and also authored Straight Man, an absolutely hilarious account of life in contemporary academia.
The Ice Harvest is about as far from the usual fictional worlds of Benton and Russo as storytelling can get. John Cusack stars as Charlie Arglist, a morally challenged lawyer whose life has drifted right into the abyss. Once married and a father of two children, he's now a divorced and dissolute legal facilitator for a vicious mobster named Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). As the film begins, Charlie has decided to risk everything on an undetailed act of embezzlement. Similar movies concern themselves with the intricacies of the scam. This one reveals only that Charlie gets his mitts on a satchel containing $2.1 million and somehow has had to involve pornographer acquaintance Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) who ends up being custodian of the cash.
The plot turns less on whether the heisters are going to be caught by the cops or whacked by Guerrard, than on when Charlie will fall apart from anxiety over a) getting caught, b) getting whacked or c) getting cheated out of his loot by Vic. Charlie ought to just go home and take a sleeping pill until a scheduled rendezvous with Vic the next day, but instead he hangs out in bars, buys rounds for the house, ogles strippers and hits on Renata (Connie Nielsen), the character whose Veronica Lake hairdo works most effectively to suggest the 1940s noir that the whole picture aims for. In the moral ambiguity of noir, the hero (and sometimes other characters as well) stands outside accepted social conventions but nonetheless holds true to a value system he generate for himself. Charlie is way too lost to have devised a value system of any kind whatsoever.
Ramis has discussed how The Ice Harvest is more philosophically ambitious than his forthright comic work in Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, Analyze This and Groundhog Dog. And Cusack has commented on the picture's existential ruminations. But I have no idea what they are talking about. The sorts of issues they invoke require character development in a movie that attempts none. In fact, the strategy of the film is to devise a series of episodes connected mostly through chronology and orchestrated for laughs. The boyfriend of a stripper gets in a fight with a dirty old man who fondles his girlfriend while Charlie watches. But neither the boyfriend nor the stripper really have anything to do with the story. Charlie meets a drunken pal (Oliver Platt) at a bar and tries to play peacekeeper while the pal makes lewd remarks to a comely bartender. A paranoid Charlie drives by Vic's house, hears gunshots, enters to investigate and discovers that Vic has somehow (and how unlikely it is!) crammed a thug into a footlocker.
The script is clever enough to deliver laughs in each of these and many other situations. But the scenes don't really cohere. None are inherently necessary. Remove any one of them and the picture would be weaker only because a laugh would be lost, not because an imperative piece of the story had been removed. No one learns anything. Nothing transformational comes to pass. Those who can tolerate the gore may laugh often enough to feel adequately entertained. Those who can't laugh in the face of horrible violence had best give this one a pass.