Half-reaped ‘Harvest’

Ryan Wenzel

For years, John Cusack has been known as the nice guy. He starred in 2000’s High Fidelity as a music geek with a broken heart, and he played an insecure movie star in America’s Sweethearts the following year.

But the Evanston native’s huge female following won’t fall in love with his newest role. In Harold Ramis’ The Ice Harvest, due in theaters Nov. 23, Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, a crooked, conflicted lawyer who tries to flee Wichita Falls, Kan., on Christmas Eve after stealing $2 million.

The film is half thriller, half comedy. After Charlie tricks mob boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid) out of the money with the help of his friend Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), a barrage of problems prevents him from leaving town. His trust in Vic wavers, and a sultry strip club owner named Renata (Connie Nielsen) tries to seduce him, hoping to run off with the cash. Between melodramatic moments, Charlie’s drinking buddy, Pete (Oliver Platt), provides cheap laughs through physical humor and crude language.

Based on the well-received novel by Scott Phillips, the film was supposed to take place during a blizzard, but Ramis instead opted to film in rain and slush. “We couldn’t afford snow, so we had a wet Christmas, not a white Christmas.”

Whether the pain-stricken characters are fun to watch is arguable – no one’s motives are clear, and many characters abandon or kill each other for financial gain.

But there’s no doubt Cusack’s acting is a clear departure from what audiences are used to. Cusack won’t name specific titles, but he says he regrets some of the romantic comedies he’s done. In the film industry, you have to take unwanted roles build a resume and do more appealing films. “I couldn’t do (some movies) without doing the romantic comedies,” he says matter-of-factly.

The Ice Harvest was also a different opportunity for Nielsen, best known for her role as Lucilla in Gladiator, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2001. In both films, Nielsen plays a conflicted woman, confused by questions of love and loyalty. But the Danish-born actress says it was more of a challenge to sympathize with her femme fatale character in The Ice Harvest.

“I don’t like my character, but I’m fascinated by her,” Nielsen says. “She’s a type. She’s here to use the hero and break his heart.”

But the challenge Nielsen faced wasn’t unique. Platt also acknowledges that his character, though arguably the funniest and most human, wasn’t easy to like. Pete steals Charlie’s beautiful wife away from him, neglects holiday dinners to get drunk and flirt with bar waitresses, and makes up for his apathy toward his children with expensive gifts and a decadent contemporary home.

“You don’t have to like your character, but you have to understand them,” says Pratt, who starred in 2003’s Pieces of April. “You have to understand where they’re coming from.”

Ramis goes as far as to esoterically call The Ice Harvest a film noir, but he says the film wasn’t influenced by the work of other directors.

“I’m not a film student,” says Ramis, who also directed Caddyshack and Groundhog Day. “I never thought we were making a genre film. We just did the film, and then we looked at what we had made. What most screenplays suffer from is that they’re totally derivative of other films.”

Given the film’s inability to connect with the audience and Ramis’ reputation for base comedies, the film would benefit from the influence of Fritz Lang or John Huston, but Ramis doesn’t seem to care about the movie’s quality or what critics say about it. He says directing is his passion, and it shows from his cool self-assurance and his rapport with the actors.

“You get to do it all,” he says with a smile. “It’s nice to be able to get right in there – especially in the love scenes.”4

Medill junior Ryan Wenzel is the PLAY editor. He can be reached at [email protected]