RIORI Vol 3, Installment 94: Jake Kasdan’s “Orange County” (2002)


15754842_PA_Orange-County


The Players…

Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Catherine O’Hara, John Lithgow, with Schuyler Fisk, Lily Tomlin, Harold Ramis and Kevin Kline.


The Story…

Ah, SoCal. Perfect place for sun, surf and simply goofing off. Ideal for your average high school grad…if you wanna go nowhere fast.

After a tragedy in his young life, Shaun snaps to reality right quick. He figures out almost too late that there’re more to life than sun, surf and simply goofing off.

There’s the Great American Novel to write!


The Rant…

What seems like a lifetime ago I dreamed of being a writer. Well, “dreamed of” may be a bit inaccurate. You’re reading this blog I’ve been toiling at for over 6 years. Most of it contains words. I suppose you could claim RIORI as writing. Y’know, like the comments section on a YouTube channel, or the blurbs on Facebook.

I, then/still demanded paper. Remember paper? It’s not just for your stinky ass anymore. It’s been also used in books. Hypertext with ink. You know. I wanted to write books. Big novels all about the human condition and short stories all about, well, the human condition. And robots. Always enjoyed science fiction.

I wanted to write like my author idols did. Carver, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Ellison and King. Create creeping tales of the desperate and torn characters on their quest for self-reliance, truth and maybe even robots. Didn’t really pan out that way. I have a few struggling manuscripts gathering dust on a thumbdrive somewhere, and a clutch of ancient short stories taking up rent on my hard drive forever. At least they’re finished. And one novel, actually. And if I have to edit the 500-plus thing one more time into the creek she goes.

Writing is tough stuff. I screamed back in my Finding Forrester installment BCE that writing is a chore. A craft. That being said it takes years of ink to figure it out. Find a voice. Find a style. Find a publisher. Takes a lot of time, anxiety and alcohol (which may explain all my typos). Not an easy venture. Worthwhile maybe, but never easy.

Here’s a tale from the vault: post-grad 1998. I was big into the sadcore band Galaxie 500. Obsessed would be e better term. I had a germ of an idea based around some disparate couple from the 90s falling all over each other at a dying Galaxie 500 club date at a bar I was at in Colorado. From humble beginnngs do legacies start.

Fast forward to 2013. The short story bloated to a 500-plus page novel (might of mentioned that). A lot of the human condition poked its ugly head from the sewers. Got out of control. It’s complete, but totally not ready to publish.

Anxiety, remember? Every writer is driven by fear. Is this right? Was that right? Where’s the wine (worked for Bukowski)? None of it is easy. Writing is a craft and not a gift. Even that lyrical prose of Fitzgerald took a long time to weave between holding Zelda’s hair and assuring her Earth wasn’t Neptune. There’s always writers’ block.

What I am getting at? Besides my S/F fetish I love reading and writing as a wonderful outlet. All you ametuers like me dig that score. Think about it beyond the basic words-on-paper final product. The creation. You build worlds. Characters to do your bidding. Vent. Explore places you’ve never been, or perhaps ever. As a writer you get to play God (a wonderful example of this paradigm is Stephen King’s short story “Umney’s Last Case” from his Nightmares And Dreamscapes collection. Check it out; I’ll wait).

*whistling*

All sounds pretty sweet, right? But it is not easy. When you get to wallow in some literary success it is rewarding. And all that time churning it out to reward a friend or stranger. But Connery put it best to his young charge Rob Brown:

“Women’ll sleep with you if you write a book?” Jamal asked.

And Forrester replied, “Women will sleep with you if you write a bad book!”

With a female shaped like an ampersand. Swaddled in Nestle’s Crunch. And hopefully with a willing vag.

Crude? Yes. True? Affirmative. There is glamour in writing, even with mediocre work (looking at you, Danielle Steele and/or John Grisham, who both have yachts). From what I’ve seen Big Deal writers can get the rock star treatment. Book signings with a queue of rapturous fans going out the door and onto the freeway. At events like sci-fi conventions, certain writers are treated like royalty, up on stage with a panel of their peers, geeky slobbering audience hanging on every word. Heck, my buddy Stephen King holds a contest to have a campfire with some lucky fans to exchange scary stories.

But I’ve writing to be a humble, lonely craft. Mostly because it is not easy, but it also takes its toll on one’s imagination. That is the hardest part. Getting lost. Losing sight of the story, which often leads to writers’ block, which is even harder to cope with. Look at me: every novel I started is still in a holding pattern. Low-grade writers’ block. It happens from time to time, which is another aspect of the craft of writing makes it not so easy. Example? I’ll mention my main man Stephen King again. He’s knows some sh*t. He explained in his bio that when block hits, he goes for a long walk to mull things over. A significant time he did his walk (and it didn’t involve any auto accident) was back in the 70s when was laboring over his tome in progress, the jillion-pages of The Stand. He hit a rut and went for his walk, then came across a solution.

Spoiler (as if you read anything on paper anyway).

Blow up the protags. He then carried on his apocalyptic vision. You do what you gotta do. Namely find the right inspiration to alleviate the not easy part of writing. It’s what gets you started, what keeps you going and above all your environment. Hopefully a comforting, clear one. Like a walk in the woods. Or curled around a craft beer at your local watering hole. Or even the beach.

When the curls are massive…


Shaun (Hanks) has a kind of dilemma.

Senior year. Time to goof off with a vague sense of leaving the nest and pursuing a future. But the surf beckons, as does beer busts, canoodling with his girlfriend and getting a tan. But even a beach bum such as Shaun knows there’s more to life (especially after one of his best friends kicks it in a surfing accident). Life is short.

One afternoon on the beach, mulling over an existential crisis, Shaun comes across a beaten copy of Straight Jacket, a novel written by one Martin Skinner (Kline), a prof at the esteemed Stanford University. Shaun can’t put it down, and it inspires him towards a station in life: he decides to become a writer. If only to score a chance to be near his literary hero at Stanford.

That’s one part. The other part is this: his whacked out family. As well as his daffy guidance counselor (Tomlin) who inadvertently sent him down the river. Listen:

Shaun needs approval (and cash) to go to Stanford. Good luck there. Especially when his counselor f*cks up mailing his impeccable transcript to the wrong college. HIs mom (O’Hara) is too nuts with separation anxiety. His dad (Lithgow) is too much of a workaholic to care. His bro Lance (Black)? Perpetually hungover. Commence with the hair tearing. Stanford? So out of reach.

Until Shaun’s always upbeat girlfriend Ashley (Fisk) gets resourceful. Why not just drive out to Palo Alto and plead your case to Prof Skinner in person, Shaun?

So crazy it just might…


Orange County did not hold my attention. If you are folding laundry during your viewing of a movie, it is not doing it for you. I did and it didn’t.

The plot is razor thin, a throwback to 80s John Hughes’ films. How? His works almost exclusively being hinged on memorable characters. In fact, I think all his movies were character studies. The plots were simple. The Maguffins were direct. The cast were almost always misfits. Kasdan had a a lot of misfits to rearrange here, but the puzzle was missing a lot of pieces. Namely, no chemistry. Not a whit. These folks were wacky and funny and had no business sharing a scene together. Boom.

Harsh? Sure, but not as grating as the disjointed humor. Look, the plot for Orange has been used many times. Beat the clock. A good many Hughes films played this game also. Sixteen Candles, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Planes Trains And Automobiles and such. Even his script for perennial favorite Xmas comedy Home Alone was also based on this precept. It worked for those movies because they followed the three-act structure. Namely something will happen/something is happening/something will get resolved. This does not happen with Orange. It’s all one big first act, taking off and going nowhere.

There. Whew. Had to let that hen out.

However it can’t be ignored there was a movie there. Not much of a story, but a movie. It’s slightly goofy bent attracted my attention at first only soon after having saying. “Please, don’t be a ‘trying to be hip’ movie.” It tries, all right. I just could not escape the feeling that this has been done before (Brian Robbins’ mediocre The Perfect Score) and done better (eg: Steve Pink’s Accepted, also torn to shreds here. Wasn’t bad). I think I was correct there, which is unfortunate to have such a stale plot driven by—can’t be denied—a great and totally misused cast. It’s one thing to take a rinky-dink script and spin into a wonderful tale populated with talented unknowns. Kasdan did the direct opposite with Orange.

Let’s talk about the casting, shall we? You know how I do love to bitch about pacing and put the actors through the wringer. This may not have been his first role, but Tom’s kid Colin Hanks as the only port in the storm here; his first leading role and role of note. He holds his own well here with Orange as he holds all of Orange together. And only him. And that’s a shame. Not that Hanks doesn’t do the “frantic graduating high school senior” trope well (he does), but rest of the players either perform as wooden or stereotypical (eg: crazed suburban mom, workaholic dad, Leslie Mann being all slutty, etc). That being pointed out, I noticed certain “tics” Colin inherited from his famous dad. A big success in Tom’s acting is having a “rubber face.” That’s not some pejorative. Hanks has had a very expressive face (career wise) since the eldritch two seasons of “Bosom Buddies.” Tom’s best roles always involving him freaking out. I’m not saying Colin doesn’t “freak out” in Orange (he does), but the “tics” leading up to them smack of dad’s are even a little more pronounced, like he’s trying to channel angst from his stiff cast members. In other words, Colin’s the only honest actor here. Everyone else seems tired. Really bothered me.

Leseee. We have O’Hara here, the queen of pee-your-pants-funny freak out. She excels at crazy. Remember the Harry Belafonte scene in Beetlejuice? That was her. Manic mom on a quest for Culkin in Home Alone? That was her. Early SCTV? That was her. Boozy, opting for no medication codependent suburbia divorcee? Nope. At least not here with such a schtick. Over the top, that was the problem. I know that what described does not allow subtly, but the pill-popping divorcee mom popping pills to deal with the divorce has been done to death by lesser moms than O’Hara’s.  In sum, she was boring and predictable.

John Lithgow, perhaps one of the best, most versatile character actors ever, is a painfully wooden cipher here. Selfish, workaholic dad, divorced, trophy wife, ignored his son in love but not in money, soft ice cream machine in the sauna, etc. You’ve seen it before. You can seen Lithgow straining against the script, some light shining through, but I’d like to think his gruff nature as Bud is channeled frustration at his agent. I’m getting all forlorn here.

The only play-against type role here is that Jack Black wasn’t really funny. A first. His manna. Second billing. Moving on.

Tech stuff! This is the “Warning: Science Content” part of the installment, akin to when Mythbusters needed to explain the details of an experiment before the program took a left turn into the “What can we make go boom this week?” show. As a dejected fan, I’m not bitter. Anyway.

It’s curious. We have a great ensemble cast, misused. We have untried but sturdy lead who does a good job. We have a “name” actor betraying his accepted histrionics. The essential pieces of a movie hopped the tracks. All we’re really left with the director’s view of the lens. He did a good job. Jake Kasdan is the usually solid and reliable director Lawrence Kasdan’s son. Lawerence cut his teeth on ensemble pieces like The Big Chill and Silverado (one of fave westerns, and I really don’t like westerns). And like those movies, Jake’s Orange is not for lacking with an eclectic cast. Poorly used eclectic cast but good actors all around.

Kasdan the younger seemed the ideal guy to move a project like Orange right along. Jake cut his teeth directing episodes of the cult/sociological TV series Freaks And Geeks, and as the title says…well, you get it. The paradox of Orange laid not with the transparent plot nor even the rip-off acting as problem; I sniffed something else. Yes, it was the pacing and, yes it was rushed, but I don’t think “rushed” is the right word for what really went wrong here.

Orange was harried. There felt like something twisted was afoot in the film’s production, and I had an inkling what. Can’t prove it and don’t dispute me.

Something was trying too hard. Y’know how I like to badger my little badger pacing, like, all the damn time? This time out with something like Orange needed less editing. The movie unfolded like a cheesy Carver story. There could’ve been a new spin on the old trope here. Like I said, John Hughes made his career on this gimmick. Instead not unlike Carver’s editor Gordon Lish’s scorned earth approach to trimming the author’s stories, Orange was peeled down (ha!) till the bone was showing by editor Tara Timpone all jacked up on th’ Mountain Dew. The running time was barely 90 minutes, and that’s usually reserved for animated flicks. Wanna know what I think happened? Really raunchy and thereby pithy sh*t was slashed so Orange  could get a PG-13 rating instead of an R.

I hate that. It’s only done to net a larger audience. More money for less art. Sigh.

Enough playing Fox Mulder. Halfway through the movie I was forced to come to the conclusions that: 1) this is a “trying to be hip” movie. With dysplasia, 2) there might’ve been something seriously lost here due to the editing. Or wasted, 3) great cast, all for naught, and; 4) Lithgow is a genius. I’ve probably painted a real skewed view on how I received Orange. Duh. It was psychologically confusing (as was overall stupid, sorry). I know this installment has been a bit schizo. I felt Orange to be, besides very meh, an exercise in cognitive dissonance; two or more things were contradictory for me here and I got all bamboozled. And bored. And I need a Tylenol enema. Really reaching with this one.

Gordon Lish? Really?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Orange was boring, confusing and tired, even with the reliable (muted) goofiness from Jack Black. When the DVD crapped out in the third act, I didn’t even consider notifying Netflix. And yes, I am one holdout out of 3 million subscribers that still risk it with the damned discs.


Stray Observations…

  • “Do you want me to get naked and start the revolution?” Works every time.
  • “I’m gonna assume you read all my fanboy-ism for Stephen King. I know a lot of folks believe he’s kinda a hack. He can be, but I thank him all the same for being the first writer I ever paid attention to, regardless of his hack scary and sci-fi stories. Yes, he’s written sci-fi. And fantasy. And articles for the NY Times magazine. Top that, Dickens!
  • “You stole my Palm Pilot!” How to date a movie: mention period tech.
  • Barring Social D, I hate the soundtrack.
  • Notice the untamed eyelids?
  • adore Lithgow. So should you, philistine.
  • Notice the reclining statue?
  • And the socks?
  • “I gotta get outta Orange County.” Word.

Next Installment…

When evil rears is many hydra’d head to destroy the world, you better seek the aid of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen!

Just bone up on your popular 19th Century fiction first.


 

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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.