A few weeks ago, Harold Ramis was sitting in a hotel conference room discussing the subtext of The Ice Harvest, his new film based on the novel by Scott Phillips and adapted by Robert Benton and Richard Russo. Ramis explained that he took the project, which Benton (Nobody's Fool, The Human Stain) and others were supposed to direct, because it was, in his estimation, about far more than two men swindling a mobster out of $2 million on Christmas Eve. Rather, he insisted, it dealt with the fact that no one can be trusted anymore -- how we live in a world in which layers of lies are offered as The Official Truth and doubters are damned as traitorous dissenters. "As a nation," Ramis said, "we're living in a dark time.... We're suffering from an epistemological crisis, because we don't know what we know anymore." So it's like all political and existential and shit, a cautionary tale dolled up as a hodgepodge of inept misdeeds and iniquitous missteps -- or so says the guy who co-wrote Animal House and Stripes and Caddyshack.
Which isn't to say that The Ice Harvest is so terrible that Ramis must give a good accounting of himself. He's made far, far worse things to keep off the resumé at all costs: Club Paradise, Analyze That, Stuart Saves His Family, that Bedazzled remake. For The Ice Harvest, a movie full of degenerates and shmucks and pornographers and hoodlums who seem to make up the majority of the populace of Wichita, Kansas, he need not apologize; better Ramis enter this frigid territory than the myriad other klutzes trying to walk in Fargo's footsteps all these years. It's a dark lark, no more and no less, a caper comedy full of enough kinky jokes to remind the audience that, indeed, you're supposed to laugh at it every now and again.
The characters are laughable all by their lonesome, none more so than John Cusack's Charlie Arglist, a big-time attorney in a small-time town looking to make a break for it on the slipperiest night of the year. Cusack's good at playing guys like Charlie, the low-lifer at the end of his short rope; after so many years of playing the hopeful romantic, he might be better suited after all to the role of hopeless and hapless dope. Charlie only looks like he's got his shit together -- nice enough car, decent suit, good looks capped with a blank stare. But he's big-time only in the middle of nowhere -- "Kans-ass," as his drunken pal Pete (Oliver Platt) puts it. He's a failure disguised as a success: Charlie apparently spends all his time warming bar stools in strip clubs; couldn't keep his marriage together (his wife ran off with Pete and made him so miserable that he lives in the bottom of a booze bottle); can't get his two little kids to even acknowledge him, much less like him; and can't even land the way-too-pretty owner of a rinky-dink strip bar, Renata (Connie Nielsen), who has so little going for her that she's collecting coin on Christmas Eve.
So awful is Charlie's existence that he has for a partner a double-dealing pornographer named Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), the kind of guy who'd think nothing of capping his own wife if it meant keeping someone from finding out something he shouldn't know. Charlie and Vic aren't so much partners -- more like rivals joined at the leather bag of cash stashed between them in the front seat. You never really understand why or how these two ended up as friends and partners in crime -- the movie begins with Charlie making the illicit withdrawal, as casually as he might take $20 from an ATM -- but they do deserve each other. But Charlie has Pete, too, whom he drags around the frozen night like the slurred voice of reason. They have too much in common: the same wife, the same frustrations, the same impotent aspirations that have kept them in the same lousy place too long.
A better title might have been It's a Miserable Life: If Groundhog Day was Ramis's Capra homage, this is his Capra parody, about a man doing the worst things imaginable at Christmastime to make his life just a little bit better come New Year's Day. Charlie, unlike Bill Murray's Phil, isn't going to come out of this experience a better man or a changed man, just a corrupt and empty man who did what he did so he could do something else. So it's got that going for it, which is nice. Yet whatever Ramis's intentions for The Ice Harvest -- as political parable, as comic anti-Christmas caper, as something slightly more respectable than a work for hire -- the movie's fun, if too familiar; we've been here before, even if he hasn't. This is lightweight stuff dying to be seen as heavy, and it just isn't. People betray each other in movies all the time, and Ramis can drill for subtext all he wants, but here he comes up not with rich crude but, a little too often, just some tap water.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.