RIORI Vol 3, Installment 49: Harold Ramis’ “The Ice Harvest” (2005)


The Ice Harvest


The Players…

John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt, Ned Bellamy, Mike Starr and Randy Quaid.


The Story…

Clueless attorney Charlie Arglist embezzles $2 million from a mobster. Not a good life decision. Yet he keeps examining gift horses’ teeth. Nevertheless and with the swag in tow, sleazy Charlie plans to skip town with the girl of his misbegotten dreams. That is until the cops get nosey, as is their job.

Smart time to just follow advice from the Steve Miller Band.

Get it? I luv being funny and clever.


The Rant…

I work for the 2%.

It’s not something I’m proud of. In fact serving the gold-plated denies me everything I stand against. Self-righteous entitlement. Conspicuous consumption. Asparatame. But this guy’s gotta make a living, the one with the beater car and the beaten credit score. I have a wife and kid to support, and since they enjoy electricity so much I have to keep us financially solvent. That and beer and smokes aren’t free. Funny, neither is Netflix. So heigh-ho, heigh-ho.

That’s most of us. Most of us with bills for power, gas and medical care best pull down a 40-plus hour week lest we fall behind in car payments, credit card bills, mortgages and your bookie’s tab. We need to buy groceries, pay for education and doctors, gas for the car and the occasional indulgence, like a short vacation and/or your weight in dark chocolate for those late night cravings. These things require money, hence why we work. Sure beats being broke, living in the streets and scoring what few coins certain intimate services to strangers may provide.

Most of us just struggle along. A lot of us doubtless wish we get a bigger slice of the pie. Very few of us ever do. Wealth usually only comes to those who are lucky, crafty and/or inheriting daddy’s empire. And such riches are often pissed away like hair down the shower drain. Get me, I don’t take issue with wealth, though. It’s not like I’m some radical, left-winged Abbie Hoffman clone denouncing the disparity between the haves and have-nots. Okay, I’m not radical. Can’t ride a skateboard. But I’d be hard-pressed to deny that in these United States the rest of us would be pretty grateful for a large injection of cash to lighten the load and get that chocolate. We’d could cut a large check to a cause to benefit humanity, like find a cure for AIDS or alopecia. We’d love to own an island and maybe establish an endangered species rescue colony. We’d love to have a custom X-Wing.

Nah. Dreaming of that stuff is something we all do once in a while. I think about that X-Wing thing daily, though, all painted up like the Sgt Pepper’s album cover.

I do take issue is how big money is misspent, if not outright abused. Banks too big to fail failing and crushing the housing market. Big Pharma taking careful measures to amp up prices for “research” and at the same time curing nothing so to maximize profits. The fatuous upper crust building actual gold-plated bunkers for when the inevitable happens and the rabble reenacts the French Revolution. Cake and everything.

Don’t even get me started on what Uncle Sam pisses away every minute.

But in the long run for most folks—2% or otherwise—too much money too fast makes you f*cking stupid. I’m not talking about tools who blew their lottery winnings on wine, women, song and an X-Wing painted up like the Sgt Pepper’s album cover. Not day traders who sweat their own piss 25/8 into the next share onto share until they have an aneurism all in the name of some third-world start-up. Not even the upper echelon who think they are invulnerable to social mores and…wait, they are. Sh*t, that’s stupid.

What I’m saying is a lot of people reach for some pretty dumb ends to collect and lose money. I often believe it’s done with a half-baked, shortsighted and head-in-the-clouds kinda daydreaming about what a huge stack could offer. Sports cars you can’t afford the upkeep for. Same for a massive summer bungalow on the beach. Any number of flash accessories to live out your revenge fantasy on all the kids that kicked you out of the playground in grammar school. Sh*t like that. Where to get that quick fix of cash to fill that personal emptiness?

Nowhere. You can’t. Unless you inherit it or bet what little money you had right (e.g.: win the lottery or on Wall Street, whichever gamble you prefer), you’ll get the cash through long hours at your place of employ, scrimping and saving where you can, favors from your bank maybe (if you got one), but more likely relatives and patient friends and forgoing any luxuries like a new XBox One, ordering out for pizza and/or sleep. Big wealth doesn’t just come out of the ether. So much that in our so-called classless society, the majority of Americans will earn what their earning right now until retirement. If they get there.

Most of the time the big money stays right where it is, in a relatively tight global network that’s enthrall to the 2%. You’ve heard it before, and it’s not some outlandish Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theory either. It’s more like an open secret. Six empires control everything, and the profits en toto. Disney, Viacom, etc. Pulling the (purse) strings. The kind of blinding avarice the rest of us covet is always going to be out of reach. So for a reality check, keep punching the clock, wasting cash on hand on stupid scratch-offs and deny yourself that good night’s rest. Your dreams will still be there in the morning before the coffee’s ready.

After many years working for the upper 2% I learned something. Now I’m a bit of an armchair philosopher, meaning I call it like I see it. This is what I saw, and it’s based on personal and against experiences prior to catering to the Robin Leach crowd, BTW. Just roll with me a bit longer.

We all have addictions. Be it poker, Pokemon Go or substance abuse. I’m not sure about the second one, but the others have an option of rehab. You can fess up to your problem, seek out a support group and hopefully get your sh*t together. I have an addiction; I drink too much. I had a co-worker once who was a recovering junkie sharing a house with other recovering junkies. I’ve been to meetings and have sought council. Same with my old friends. There is a way out, once you owe up to the addiction and admit you need help. Society scorns addicts, also knowing full well what their cravings do may lead to either criminal acts and/or bodily harm. Theirs or others (others seem to take precedence). But there are outs, places to commune with other addicts, share stories, drum up mutual support. Hopefully this leads to recovery, or at least a semblance of one.

Here’s the hard truth. Groups only work so far. You actually need that social stigma—that guilt and remorse—to take action and clean up your sh*t. Loose the booze. Drop the needle. Fold. Otherwise it’ll lead to not just a loss of the plot or actual physical harm (yours or the bum you snow over for coins that may lead to another fix of crack), but the gentry looking down its collective nose at you. Scorn. It can be quite the potent motivator to find the straight and narrow.

However there is one addiction that has no cure, simply because it is both encouraged by society (if not revered) and even held in esteem. It’s the addiction to wealth. Enough is never enough. Such a junkie never views themselves as sick, despite having more directly demands having even more. Gone are the days of philanthropy. If a millionaire spreads his billfold wide, there’s usually some PR detachment  waiting with a phalanx of CNN and Fox News cameras at the ready. There’s really no such thing as altruism anymore.

Barring Warren Buffet, too many of the 2% need a detox. You don’t need a gold-plated bunker. You don’t need an island chain in the South Pacific to serve as a driveway for your platinum Maserati collection (which you never drive and never will). You moms don’t need titanium strollers for you 11-year olds. But no plebeian American turns a nose up at this. Amassing wealth is the ‘Murican dream. Smartly managing it? Keep sleeping, and enjoy your Big Mac for breakfast each and every morning.

There is no cure for wealth addiction. There is no end, no matter how many Powerball tickets you scratch. And f*ck all who get in the way of the dividends. Including the housing market.

*pant, pant*

To be fair, some enterprising people do profit wildly from outlandish schemes now and then while staying within the margins. Even a blind squirrel and so on. Some were no accidents. Some get-rich-quick strategies actually paid off without resorting to the Wall Street casino. Some stupid, but eventually fruitful (in no small part to the low-hanging fruit mentality of our blessed country. Quick n’ cheap) ideas that let the coins roll in if only for a short time. Pet rocks, Tamagotchis, Seward’s Folly, etc, at least those fortunes—however hair-brained the motives—had a plan in place, real or projected. Not just it’ll-come-to-ya finger crossing, but a drive. Careful designs in motion. There are the people who just wanna make a quick buck, skim off the top, con, swindle and scam. On the spot and with zero plan what to do once they get their mitts on some cash, if they ever do. Looking up to Rupert Murdoch or our present GOP talking head as if to aspire to be Jesus, Mohammed or John Lennon. It’s okay, no treatment needed there. Brass rings await.

The lower 98% thinks along these lines, I’ll bet. Not all, of course. I still have to work, sleep and keep studying frame by frame every scene of The Sting over and over again in order to locate my own pet rock. If we all had more, what should we really do with it? And how do we get to it? How do we keep it? Is a plan necessary? Do I have a problem? Why are low income folks eating out of McDonald’s Dumpsters to survive? Why should anyone feel compelled to build a gold-plated bunker when titanium is so much stronger, not to mention cheaper? Sh*t, why should any high profile mover and shaker feel compelled to build a bunker in the first place? That says something about who has too much and who has too little if you ask me.

So. Where do we 98% start? Where’s an ample supply of cash at to get our teeth fixed or our car to work or coffee in our mugs? Where can we find our ugly quick fix and “get ahead?”

Well, if you’ve been paying attention over the past few decades, outright theft’s been a pretty reliable tactic…


Charlie (Cusack) has a problem. A few actually. One, he’s broke. Two, he needs cash and quick. Three, he’s a mob lawyer. And four, he just embezzled over $2 million dollars from his best client Bill Gerard (Quaid). Bill’s not the most understanding person in the world, so when he finds out where his finances went, Charlie’s going to have to face his fifth problem: getting away with it, scott free.

He also hates being stuck in Kansas, but that’s another thing entirely.

Okay, so Charlie has the money. He and his fixer friend (and Bill’s illict porn distributor) Vic (Thornton) have concocted a wily scheme of  getting their swag and themselves the hell out of Dodge. Well, will finalize how to get away. Of course, there are always snags in pulling off a heist like this.

Like Charlie being a nervous nelly about getting caught. Like the thug who’s pursuing Charlie and Vic to less than gently shake them down. Like Charlie’s crush on stripper Renata (Neilsen), who has less than a heart of gold and a way of pouring honey in Charlie’s ear. Like having to babysit drunken buddy Pete (Platt), who just won’t shut up about Charlie’s shady career choice. And of course Bill inevitably tracking the the dopey pair down.

All on an Xmas Eve…


Don’t misunderstand. The Ice Harvest is a comedy. A dark comedy. Very dark. We’re talking charcoal here. This ain’t no How To Train Your Dragon here, bucko (shout-out to Lex).

Harvest‘s comedic tone isn’t something I’m used to in a Harold Ramis movie. The humor is so dry it practically chafes. I’m accustomed to Ramis’ movies to be a little madcap, be it nutty plots, snarky dialogue and over-the-top goofball characters. With Harvest, you’d never find the likes of Al Czervik, Carl Spackler or Clark Griswold with their loony comedy cachet. Nope. You would find…well, Charlie Anglist and Vic Cavenaugh, and all the silliness that entails.

Which isn’t much. Or at least being very different form Ramis’ previous efforts.

Harvest a very low-key affair compared to the late, great Ramis’ other movies. Very low-key. This film barely plays like a comedy at all. There are snappy lines, amusing characters and almost noir-ish story playing out. The movie’s source material was Scott Phllips novel of the same name. Never read the thing, but what I got out of Ramis’ adaptation is that Phillips must have a grim sense of humor.

Grim is one of the watchwords here. From the get-go you know this crime caper is bound to fail, it’s only a matter of when. That uncommon dry humor works well for this tale of the wages of sin. It doesn’t ever lighten the load, and that creepy vibe is only amplified for it. One of the major scenes in the film—and doubtless the funniest—is when Vic and Charlie get into a gunfight with Bill’s heavy locked in a trunk. It’s a demented scene, to be sure and rather funny. But these guys are going to kill the guy in the trunk lest he takes out Charlie and report back to his superior about the missing cash. That sounds like something out of a Tarantino flick. The Ice Harvest is a comedy, written by the guy who gave us Caddyshack and the original Ghostbusters. Despite the grim air, this film is meant to make you laugh. Sometimes you do, but mostly you just cringe.

The other key term attached to Harvest is demented. The whole story—set up in the opening with Cusack Coen-esque voice over—is so going to be a paper moon for Charlie. We’re let in on the little secret here and there by the nonsense that routinely pops up in our “hero’s” post heist. Pete’s drunken raging. Renata’s fake 1940’s bombshell schtick. Officer Tyler popping up at the most inopportune times. And of course it’s Christmas in Middle America, all honest and friendly. Nothing in Harvest is simple angst and evading the law/mobster. It’s all about the dry and often unhinged humor designed to discomfort. If Ramis was trying to make Coen Brother pastiche or simply try to stretch himself as director, he succeeded in fits and starts with Harvest.

A lot of what makes this grim, demented, black chucklefest work is (no surprise here) acting. We don’t have a traditional rogue’s gallery here, and Charlie the nebbish is hardly a steel-in-his-veins protagonist. No need nor want. Here we get a neurotic, white collar thief with a crush on a stripper with way too much easy money and not a safe to found. Dillinger he ain’t. I’ve always loved Cusack’s nervous, awkward energy. When either he gets antsy or really into a role, it’s all about scenery chewing without the chewing. A lot of mugging, albeit controlled. A lot of apologetic looks. Flat affect smiles. He seems to enjoy dropping things. He also is very funny when he is cranky. His Charlie has gotten himself  into such a bucket of syrup he can only surrender to the madness of it all and devolved into all Three Stooges. Not the physical aspect, mind you. Just the inevitable beat-downs, social and otherwise. His hangdog is a mile wide and we’re supposed to root for him. We can’t, and that’s fine.

Charlie’s ying to his yang is Vic. Mister smooth smoothie (so we’re led to believe). He knows all the chords, and will play them all the way to the Kansas border. Vic gives the air of cool, calm and collection. He has no doubt he and Charlie’s windfall will make it over the border. It’s all a ruse, though. Vic is just as fragile as Charlie, knowing Gerard’s flunkie is just around the corner to off them, even from within a trunk.

To give you an idea as to how detached a role like Vic’s could be portrayed, I submit Exhibit A: Sam Raimi’s 1998 crime caper gone awry A Simple Plan. Played opposite against a manic Bill Paxton (like there’s any other kind) as a stooge who ended up blowing the whole crime. Here Thornton is the polar opposite, never a jitter to be seen, but the endgame is the same. He knows more than he lets on, at least by what he thinks he knows. The end result is Thronton as a used car salesman selling hoopdies from an empty lot. Not quite sleazy, but cool enough to pull Charlie along into this mess. Both characters are the opposing sides of the same coin. It’s implied that this inside job wasn’t Charlie’s idea seeing how Vic is so clinical about the whole dangerous undertaking. And his fast-talking and angular logic and everything’s-gonna-be-alright delivery just rankles Charlie more, fraying his nerves. That’s funny stuff—a Fargo inspired Abbott and Costello bit—ignoring the heavy pall over Wichita Falls.

The final leg of this triangle is Nielsen’s sultry, conniving dancer Renata. Her femme fatale act is the culmination of a billion Rita Heyworth fanfics. That’s funny without being funny, and her schtick still falls along the lines of dark comedy. Such a caricature starring in a film post-1975 would be laughed off the screen and the screen then burn the screen. Beyond goading Charlie to waltz into her web of shear camies and legs, Neilsen’s best offer to Harvest in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge department is the anti-Elsa a la Casablanca. She’s the reverse, and if you think about it Harvest is a screwy take on Curtiz’ masterpiece. A dire getaway. The woman to leave behind. A lost fortune. Considering this scenario, author Phllips is a genius. How it panned out along Ramis’ storyboard, not so much.

If there is some theme to Harvest is that it’s about a lot less than purloined money. It’s pacing is helpful in unraveling this. Sluggish, like the Kansas winter that slows everything to a crawl. It’s about identity. It’s about trust. It’s about avarice and keeping enemies closer. It’s about army training, sir. The 2 mil is just the Maguffin. What surrounds it is an opportunity for a character study. That and a meditation on greed, lust, trust and what ends people will go to become so closed-fisted. The classic It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a better example of this with a lot more laughs.

So truth be told, Harvest ain’t all that funny. Icky, dire and left-of-center amusing, but I didn’t laugh outright once. Some snickers, sure, but for a black comedy, Ramis should’ve stuck with what he knew, not cross the streams (it would be bad) and inject just a shade more dementia to rub against the grim.

There was a listless feeling, foot-dragging that made Harvest one shade off brilliant, of which Ramis was. All the hallmarks were there for a Coen Bros/Bob Rafelson/Hal Ashby anti-comedy to be in place. It’s too bad too much Red Harvest keep sneakin’ around the perimeter.

Nice try Harold, wherever you may be. A solid effort, built upon thin ice.

*cue dead drop with a splash*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another one: relent it, but with reservations. It’s always a dodgy affair when a genre-established director take a left turn. The turn here was a sharp one, but the driver was halfway asleep. Damned f*cking black ice.


Stray Observations…

  • “Mom, I gotta go…”
  • Nielsen has one of the lousiest American accents I’ve ever been exposed to. Heard that clucking as far back as Law & Order: SVU.
  • “It’s God’s birthday!” Wait, what?
  • At last, an honest cinematic depiction of your typical, average American holiday dinner. Rockwell quality that.
  • Pay phones? In the 21st Century?
  • “It’s surprisingly spacious, Vic.”
  • I can’t believe the Kafka gun tenet was quite literally put to use here. Surprising.
  • “Only morons are nice on Xmas.”

Next Installment…

Most major wars are fought deep in the trenches. When battle literally comes down in LA, soldiers take to the Skyline. Even if that means battling crazed, cannibal aliens from out of our galaxy.

War is hell.


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