The Ice Harvest
The combined talent of director Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day) and performers John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton is a lot to recommend and it got this sour pill made. Firmly ensconced in the Coen brothers’ world of Midwestern noir, sans the quirky characters, The Ice Harvest takes place on Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas. Charlie (Cusack, finally looking his age), a sleazy mob lawyer, has stolen a serious wad of cash from his bosses with the help of Vic (Thornton, cold). All he and Vic need to do is lay low overnight and skip town in the morning. Of course, trouble comes looking for them. Cusack’s charm usually elevates dark material (see The Grifters) but even he’s no relief in this relentlessly grey movie. One wishes they’d gone for a few black, deadpan laughs, but there are none to be found. It’s a simple problem: if you hate everyone in the movie, there’s no suspense and little sympathy when characters start dying, and no clever twists alleviate the dragging inevitability of it all. At a crisp hour and a half, it still feels too long.
This is a film with pedigree: directed by the filmmaking team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End), adapted from the Myla Goldberg novel by screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (also known as Mom to Jake and Maggie). Its ambitions are far-reaching. A Jewish family (Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross and Max Minghella) from Oakland, California, is in various stages of spiritual and personal crisis. The theology professor father avoids marital anxiety by helping his daughter to the national spelling bee finals, instructing her in a Kabbalist technique that equates God with the power of language. Meanwhile, the mother has a secret — even from the audience, which becomes increasingly frustrating — and the son starts to look into different religions. The exploration of faith and mysticism in everyday life is laudable — hell, it’s refreshing — but the characters remain inaccessible. The film never rises beyond a clinical exercise because the family doesn’t live and breathe through the opaque plot developments. One gets the sense of a fascinating novel behind this film — it’s too bad the cinematic product isn’t more involving.
When the genre descriptor “teen comedy” has become insulting to the audience at which it’s aimed, there is a problem. The American Pie movies revived this kind of thing with a combination of solid characters, ribald humour and sweetness, but many movies down the production line have suffered from a distinct lack of these essential elements. Just Friends is the most recent. Director Roger Kumble and screenwriter Adam ‘Tex’ Davis bring us the story of Chris (Ryan Reynolds), a lean LA record company bigwig who was once a chubby New Jersey dweeb. He finds his way back home at Christmas in the company of a Britney Spears-esque pop star (Anna Faris) and reconnects with the girl he loved in high school (Amy Smart) who never took him seriously. Reynolds has charm and timing, but the script gives him little with which to work. Faris gets the best lines and a better movie could be built around her character. Though there is some well-executed physical comedy — the outdoor hockey scene is good for a laugh — the movie doesn’t have a brain in its head. This probably isn’t any kind of surprise, but if we want more classic comedies, or even more American Pies, Just Friends should be discouraged.
Cinema Palermo returns next week.