Charlie (John Cusack) and Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) are a couple of lower-echelon Wichita mobsters who get the bright idea of absconding with $2 million of the mob’s money—on an icy Christmas Eve. The scheme has the makings of a perfect crime, or so they think. But as soon as they’ve bagged the cash and before they can begin their intentionally unhurried exit, things start to go wrong.
The Ice Harvest, the wacko tale of this mismatched pair’s extravagant Yuletide misadventures, is a kind of comic film noir—a twisted farce with a dark heart and an even darker sense of humor. Director Harold Ramis and an antic cast navigate these treacherous comic-dramatic waters with somewhat mixed success. The deadpan performances—doggedly amoral distraction with Cusack, and doggedly amused deviousness with Thornton—at times seem a little too glib.
But there is a certain compelling craziness to the elaborately tangled tale of this screwed-up heist. Charlie, for example, gets sidetracked with the drunken antics of a lawyer pal (Oliver Platt) who also just happens to be married, unhappily, to Charlie’s ex-wife. Vic has his own unhappy marriage, and both Vic and Charlie have potentially explosive interests in Renata (Connie Neilsen), a hardboiled glamour girl who is also a local club manager with scams of her own under way.
At its best, the film recycles elements of film noir routine into something like a dark-humored panorama of a Middle American heart of darkness. The casting of Randy Quaid as the mob boss helps bring out that side of the picture, as does a certain understated folksiness in the lead players (in retrospect, at least). And that sardonic note of local color is also present in some the most notable smaller roles—David Pasquesi as a corrupt city councilman, T. J. Dagodowski as a young, eager-for-corruption cop, and (perhaps best of all) Ned Bellamy as Sidney the bartender, who is not nearly as thuggish as he appears to be.