Murder, Musicals, Dirty Jokes -- 'Tis the Season
By Fernando F. Croce

As somebody who would consider wrist-slashing to escape listening to seasonal caroling at work for the entire month of December, I'm all for anti-Xmas sentiment. Still, The Ice Harvest left me more desolated than any supposed comedy this year since Pretty Persuasion, probably the goal, given the unrelenting chill of doom from frame one. "No such thing as perfect crime" goes the saying, but Wichita lawyer John Cusack begs to differ, at least in theory, for he's just made off with a leather bag filled with mob money. Dour Billy Bob Thornton waiting behind a rainy windshield is a Coen Bros. memento, which readily brings things to Blood Simple territory, a pair of lunkheads home free with over two million if they can "act normal for a few hours." They can't, of course -- fear, greed, and the endless ways a human being can fuck up get in the way, bodies piling up through the long Christmas Eve's journey into day. The first stumbling block is Oliver Platt, Cusack's best friend, piss-drunk and obnoxious just when our squirrelly hero has to keep things calm; even more troublesome is Connie Nielsen, going for Bacall huskiness but falling below Lizabeth Scott in the femme fatale-o-meter. By the time Randy Quaid moseys in for Mafioso shtick in the third act, there have been enough juxtapositions of holiday decoration and strip-joint seediness for three Bad Santa sequels, though, honoring Cusack's maxim, "it is futile to regret."

The neo-noir tropes, seasoned with smalltown dead-endness, are courtesy of writers Robert Benton and Richard Russo, experienced hands at not-quite-postmodern genre explorations (Twilight, directed by Benton, runs along not dissimilar lines), with Harold Ramis as director. The Ramis of Caddyshack and Analyze This, here R-rated with a vengeance, darkening his usual character comedy for corpse disposals, severed thumbs, battered strippers, double-crosses, and a beady eye cast over family, friendship, and hulking goon Mike Starr crammed inside a trunk. The bleakness may be uncharacteristic, yet what is Groundhog Day if not No Exit tailored for Bill Murray? An Olympian overhead shot signals the picture's literally coldest point at an icy lake, although Ramis is, unlike the Coens, down in the ice with the characters, getting kicked in the nutsack with Platt, sinking to the gelid bottom with Thornton, and sweating it out with Cusack, no nudging a la Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Speaking of which, Cusack, like fellow '80s comedy staple Robert Downey, Jr., sports a newfound anxiety to go arrestingly with his usual offhand alertness; Thornton coasts on prickly vibes, but others in the cast (including Platt, Quaid, and Ned Bellamy) carve their personal niches in the woodwork. As sustained in its nastiness as a H.G. Clouzot thriller, but why was this film even made? Eggnog is to be spiked, but misanthropy is the cheapest of flavors -- turn on the tap, let it overrun, and out pops The Ice Harvest, dead cold.

*

Name your poison. If anti-Yuletide heartlessness isn't your bag, there's always musicals. How do you measure, measure a clunky stage recording like Rent? In trashy pyrotechnics? In wasted camera movements? How about faaaake rebellion? Here it is, anyhow, for those who want it, Puccini via Jonathan Larson, aspiring bohemians and AIDS and the whole damn thing, packaged and sold for moviegoers who want their struggling New Yorkers no more threatening than PG-13 whimsy. Larson's original, set in the late '80s, was already a period piece when it was first taken to Broadway a decade ago, and now, brought to the screen, feels creakier than Hair being released during the disco epoch. But Carmen has been shot repeatedly centuries after Bizet first penned it, so why not envision La Bohème for pop-rock angst and lower East Village scrappiness? I never saw any stage incarnations, though it's easy to spot the appeal -- and not merely in the mingled democracy (racial, sexual) of the characters, but also in the spilling-over sincerity of its lyrics, gutter-theatricality stabs somehow given the feel of honesty by their very gawkiness. Modern musicals to me have become a form of torture, yet there was the comforting assurance that, to crib their stanzas, anywhere I could possibly go after last year's Phantom of the Opera would be a pleasure cruise.

Assurance dashed, because it's Chris Columbus at the wheel, handling Stanley Donen's crane like a dull spoon at a Thanksgiving dinner. Wasn't Spike Lee supposed to have directed this? That Lee's streets would have been meaner is the understatement of the week, since in Columbus' hands, still buttery from the Harry Potter epics, getting AIDS from heroin syringes looks no worse than a little winter cold. The filmmaker manages bravely not to turn away when guys kiss guys and girls kiss girls, but there is still nothing to be done about his own ignorance of musical-visual flow; as in Chicago, a TV-special metallic ring hangs over the whole production, skimming surfaces without touching emotion. At least Baz Luhrmann was kept far away, so the troupers, most of them imported from the stage, can establish their own rhythms without being jazzed into fifths: Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Rosario Dawson, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, Tracie Thoms and Taye Diggs provide theatrical zest, even if their narratives might as well have been shot using Rapp's 8mm, Shirley Clarke-type camera, hand-crank and all, another relic. Faux-counterculture where The Ice Harvest is neo-noir, Rent twirls with a clubfoot atop café tables, so comfortably far from the grime of struggling artists that no struggle or art seeps in, only the dusting of a museum piece, blind to the irony of preaching against selling out. Gimme back Björk under von Trier's bondage lens.

*

Incidentally, Sarah Silverman has a bit in Rent, as a tabloid-TV executive buying up snarky edginess; in Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, the stand-up comedienne instead sells it. A concert film, but with fantasy sequences tossed in, Silverman at home bullshitting with a pair of friends about a special show of her own, followed by a swirling magical-tour sequence in a flying car. She later shows up dolled up as Marlo Thomas and Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, but mostly it is the stage for all her cherry-bombs on race, religion, 9/11, Martin Luther King, the Holocaust, porn, dead grannies, et al. "You know what babies love? Ethnic jokes," she tells the audience, every possible slur brought out and made sunny by her timing, Silverman luxuriating in her Val-Gal offensiveness. "Jewish people driving German cars... What the cock is that shit?" -- her own summarization of the absurdity of the world, although the film is hardly a confessional, for as a comic Silverman is less a personal artist than a sly one, the geysering vulgarity of riffs both served and commented upon by a honeyed delivery. A word-image disconnect, then, one that Liam Lynch, the director, nearly razes by shooting everything in shitty digital-video grain. Still, almost all is forgiven when Silverman hurls her final curve ball of tastelessness, capped by "Amazing Grace," added vocals by her pussy and asshole -- more melodious than Rent, more magical than Harry Potter.


Reviewed December 1, 2005.

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