John Cusack has a boyish demeanor that's disarmingly perfect for playing a crook, while there's something cagey about Billy Bob Thornton that does not exactly inspire trust. Yet in the sly and sophisticated noir comedy "The Ice Harvest," Cusack's Charlie, a Wichita mob lawyer, has just entrusted to his pal Vic (Thornton) $2,147,000 in cash that they have embezzled from Kansas City crime boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). A wintry Christmas Eve is about to descend upon the duo, but in time-honored tradition they intend to flee the cold for a warmer locale.
"The Ice Harvest," which unfolds with faultless ease over 12 increasingly hectic hours in Charlie's life, is a classic guilty pleasure: a wholly amoral tale in which the viewer is so charmed by the witty and not unkindly Charlie that one pulls for him to escape the escalating danger into which he has plunged and perhaps even hope he gets away as well, with the loot and the lady, who, in this case, is Connie Nielsen's sultry Renata, the improbable but deliciously elegant proprietress of a strip club, one of several such establishments with which Charlie has business connections.
Very quickly Charlie and Vic sense they are being stalked by Roy (Mike Starr), one of Guerrard's thugs, but this does not prevent Charlie from answering a call to rescue his drinking pal Pete (a scene-stealing Oliver Platt), who is causing a ruckus in an upscale bar and grill. Writers Richard Russo and Robert Benton, in adapting Scott Phillips' novel, deftly back into a surprise: Charlie's ex-wife is now married to Pete.
Charlie and Pete's arrival at a formal Christmas Eve dinner at the wife's parents' fancy home -- for which Pete is very late and Charlie hardly welcomed, especially by his children -- is a hilariously disastrous diversion. But the film is soon back to Charlie in his efforts to make it through the night and to keep the rip-off from completely self-destructing.
"The Ice Harvest" is as smooth as a dry martini, and it's an unalloyed pleasure to behold Cusack and Thornton playing off each other. They're both cocky risk-takers by nature, and while Vic is clearly pretty shrewd -- and probably completely ruthless --Charlie may or not be cannier than he seems. The ambiguity that Cusack brings to Charlie gives the film a charge and generates involvement with his fate.
Director Harold Ramis, who strikes a tone that is pleasingly knowing but never smug, creates a beautifully meshed ensemble from his cast, which includes T.J. Jagodowsky as a naive, kindly cop who keeps turning up. "The Ice Harvest" is a droll, dark Christmas treat for adults, a delightful alternative to the usual holiday-themed fare.
'The Ice Harvest'
MPAA rating: R for violence, language and sexuality, plus nudity
Times guidelines: Adult themes, situations, definitely not for children
A Focus Features release. Director Harold Ramis. Producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. Screenplay by Richard Russo and Robert Benton; based on a novel by Scott Phillips. Cinematographer Alar Kivilo. Editor Lee Percy. Music David Kitay. Costumes Susan Kaufman. Production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein. Art director Gary Baugh. Set decorator Patricia Schneider. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
In general release.