A friend of mine once pointed out that New Yorker profiles generally fall into a handful of predictable categories, the most prominent being rapturous tributes that posit their subjects as unassailable super-geniuses and preeminent architects of contemporary culture. Though invariably well written, these profiles speak the hyperbolic vernacular of blurbs. It’s never enough to argue that a writer is talented and does good work. No, they have to passionately contend that their subject has created masterpieces of such awe-inspiring brilliance that they make the combined oeuvres of Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, and F. Scott Fitzgerald look like nothing more than a flaming bag of horseshit laid on the front doorstep of American literature by a gaggle of illiterate, toothless, inbred hillbillies by comparison.
Tad Friend’s epic 2004 profile of Harold Ramis certainly falls into this category. Friend begins by arguing that, “What Elvis did for rock and Eminem did for rap, Harold Ramis did for attitude: he mass-marketed the ’60s to the ’70s and ’80s. He took his generation’s anger and curiosity and laziness and woolly idealism and gave it a hyper-articulate voice. He wised it up.” It then proceeds to offer breathless testimonials like the following:
The director Jay Roach says that the six films [Bill] Murray and Ramis made together define a level of achievement he calls “extreme comedy.”
“You would watch people in the audience just lose their minds,” he told me. “Harold Ramis is the yardstick of what you want to reach for, of people’s bodies around you going into convulsions of joy while your brain is thinking and your emotions are deeply tied in to the characters, and you’re going, ‘Oh my God, This is the best two hours I’ve ever spent.’
Many of Friend’s contentions are laughably overwrought, but it’s refreshing to see the kind of mainstream, smartly crafted comedy Ramis specializes in taken seriously. Make no mistake: Ramis is a fucking genius and a preeminent architect of contemporary culture, but his brand of crowd-pleasing comedy has a maddening way of getting marginalized and dismissed. Ramis’ résumé is staggering. He’s played a big role in many of the most popular and influential comedies of the past 30 years—Second City, SCTV (where he was a performer and head writer before quickly moving on to bigger things), Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Back To School, Groundhog Day, and Analyze This—yet he’s never come close to being nominated for an Academy Award. Nia fucking Vardolos has been nominated for an Oscar. But not Ramis.
Part of what makes Ramis so easy to overlook and underrate is that he’s an inveterate collaborator, happier re-writing other people’s scripts or being part of a team than starting from scratch. He’s also a consummate pragmatist who embraces test screening and aims to reach the broadest possible audience. According to my producer at least, Ramis was originally supposed to be the host of the poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie review panel show that would become Movie Club With John Ridley. Ramis wisely opted out, which is a tribute to his solid judgment and keen sense of what the general public wants to see.
The New Yorker profile does a convincing job of positing Ramis as an auteur all the same and dividing his career into two definitive eras: the brash, irreverent populism of his slobs v. snobs early work and his post-Groundhog Day shift into what it calls “Redemption Comedies.”
The profile also provides a fascinating inside look into the embryonic beginning of today’s entry in My Year Of Flops: 2005’s The Ice Harvest. We learn which actors Ramis sought out but didn’t get: John C. Reilly for the part eventually played by Oliver Platt, the eternally enigmatic Bill Murray for the Platt role and also the vicious mobster Randy Quaid ended up playing. We also learn that Ramis passed up a $5 million offer to make the big hacky studio comedy Guess Who in order to make The Ice Harvest for a fifth of his normal salary. And what kind of very actor-y notes John Cusack gave his director before filming: Cusack thinks his character “seems a little reactive and weak” and wanted a scene of good-loving body-rocking boot-knocking all night long with female lead Connie Nielsen earlier in the film.
Of course Cusack’s protagonist seems reactive and weak. He is reactive and weak. That’s the essence of his character. He’s in the grand tradition of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and countless other cursed noir protagonists who let a gorgeous dame with gams to die for override the dictates of their faltering moral compasses. Would Double Indemnity have even existed if MacMurray had insisted, in his notes to Billy Wilder, that when Barbara Stanwyck asks him to kill her husband he express shock and horror, angrily inform her that he wants no part in such foolishness, and report her to the police immediately?
In The Ice Harvest—a title more suiting a PBS documentary about difficult farming conditions in British Columbia than a darkly funny neo-noir—Cusack plays a boozy, sad-sack, Wichita mob lawyer who embezzles a little over $2 million from vicious boss Randy Quaid with the help of gruff, belligerent porn merchant W.R. Thornton. Thornton, of course, is best known as a monster-magazine enthusiast and the drummer/vocalist for rock superstars The Boxmasters, but he also apparently has a sideline as a film actor under the name Billy Bob Thornton. Though obviously I wouldn’t want anything to distract from his important work with The Boxmasters, I’ve got to say that Thornton is a surprisingly good thespian. Especially since it’s not his main gig. “Acting” is more than just a hobby for this multi-talented dynamo.
Thornton tells Cusack that he just needs to act normal and keep a low-profile through Christmas Eve so they can divvy up the money the next day and jet off to separate happy endings. But sadness, desperation, and anxiety cling to Cusack like cheap cologne. He steals constant swigs from a flask and commits conspicuous acts of kindness like comping customers drinks and waving stage fees for the strippers at the sad little strip club he oversees. Every flask, incidentally, should come inscribed with the words, “I am an alcoholic.” Flasks are both convenient ways to carry around liquor and silent cries for interventions. Buying a flask is tantamount to admitting that you have a drinking problem.
In a good example of novelist/screenwriter Richard Russo and veteran scribe/director Robert (Bonnie & Clyde) Benton’s tart, agreeably nasty dialogue and the film’s bleak take on humanity, Cusack tells Thornton that his minor acts of kindness won’t draw attention because “everyone’s nice on Christmas,” to which Thornton’s tersely replies, “only morons are nice on Christmas” but that entails just about the sum of humanity.
Thornton barely makes an effort to hide his contempt for Cusack. He refuses to tell him where he’s hidden their money and answers his partner’s panic-ridden question with terse belligerence. The Ice Harvest beautifully captures both the special hell that is a Midwestern winter and the way small-town life mirrors the brutal hierarchy of the playground. Within that cosmology, Thornton is the school bully and Cusack is the spineless sidekick who tolerates abuse because he doesn’t think he deserves any better. He might just be right.
At the strip club Cusack, emboldened by his ill-gotten fortune, decides stumblingly to sorta put the moves on manager Connie Nielsen, whose femme fatale looks, slinky outfits, and come-hither whisper of a voice stand out like an oasis of glamour and danger in the dinginess of Wichita. Like Thornton, Nielsen barely makes an effort to hide her disdain for Cusack. She’s a shark and Cusack must look like a fat, lazy guppy. Like William Hurt in Body Heat, Cusack’s not too smart—and she likes that in a man.
After meeting up with Thornton at a restaurant, Cusack ends up chauffeuring his ex-wife’s falling-down-drunk new husband (Oliver Platt). Like John C. Reilly, Platt looks like a giant, mentally challenged baby. Platt drunkenly brags about Cusack’s mob affiliations to anyone who’ll listen and some who won’t, but Wichita being Wichita everyone already seems to know everyone else’s secrets.
In adapting Scott Phillips’ novel, Ramis and his screenwriters created one of those perfect chains of misery where everyone is deeply unhappy and inherently corrupt. Platt derives no pleasure whatsoever from his big, gleaming house, insta-family, and fancy car. He’s so poignantly pathetic that he envies Cusack, who wouldn’t wish his life or problems on his worst enemy. Thornton has his own version of domestic hell: He speaks bitterly and sarcastically of “the lovely Gladys, of whom you’ve heard me speak with tenderness and affection” in a way that suggests that he’s never spoken of his wife with a modicum of tenderness or affection.
Cusack learns early on that a thug played by Mike Starr is hot on his trail, so when he visits Thornton’s home and finds Starr locked in a trunk—and the lovely Gladys dead after being shot in the back of the head, execution style—he’s both horrified and guiltily relieved. Starr, who stole scenes from Bill Murray and Robert De Niro in earlier Case File Mad Dog And Glory—is one of those quintessential, “Hey, it’s that guy!” character actors. In The Ice Harvest he manages to create an indelible character both goofy and menacing with just his voice while locked in a trunk. When Cusack discovers the trunk with Starr locked inside, they have the following memorable exchange:
Starr: Is that you Arglist?
Cusack: Hi, Roy.
Starr: When I get out of here I’m going to kill you. You know that, right?
Thornton: You must be one fucking optimist to think you’re ever getting out of that trunk.
Starr: Let me out Arglist. I’m your only hope.
Cusack: Actually you just told me you’d kill me if you ever got out, Roy.
Starr: I didn’t mean it.
Cusack: It sounded like you did.
Starr: I was just pissed off.
A bravura black-comic setpiece follows in which Cusack and Thornton drive to a lake to dispose of the trunk, and Starr keeps up a never-ending string of patter where he acts as both an angel and a devil on Cusack’s shoulder, telling him what he already knows deep inside—that Thornton is merely using him and that he’ll kill him the first chance he gets. So when Starr somehow manages to jimmy the lock and shoot Thornton, Cusack leaves his partner to die an icy, horrible, and wholly deserved death.
Cusack here somehow manages to be a nice guy without being a good man or a decent human being. His character is a spectacular failure in every conceivable respect: an embezzling employee, a crooked lawyer, a terrible, negligent father, and a would-be lothario who couldn’t find the way to Nielsen’s cold black heart with a GPS system and cupid hovering over his shoulder. Though he’s buddies with their alcoholic, deeply depressed stepfather, Cusack apparently makes no effort to be a part of his children’s life, reasoning self-servingly that a “clean break” is best for everyone. When his angry son bitches him out for not getting them anything for Christmas, Cusack tries to rectify the situation in the cheapest, most arbitrary manner imaginable: by buying them random crap from a convenience store. Even the clerk looks down on him. Cusack is a man ruled by his compulsions and weaknesses, defined by his inability to rise to the moment.
In a performance that hits just the right note of existential emptiness and bone-deep exhaustion, Cusack plays a man who understands intuitively that the redemption and new life he seeks will forever be just out of his grasp. He’s impotent literally and metaphorically—Quaid refers to him as a “whiskey dick lawyer” and since Cusack earlier semi-bragged to Platt about occasionally sleeping with the strippers at Quaid’s club he’d be in a position to know—and what passes for kindness in the icy hell that is Wichita, especially on Cusack’s part, is really just weakness.
In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Platt begs Cusack to take him along when he flees town. “I can’t do my life, man. I can’t do it.” Platt whimpers pathetically before proposing that they go out in a “blaze of glory” though heaven knows what that would entail for two pasty, drunken, desperately unhappy middle-aged men/overgrown adolescents running away from their lives.
The Ice Harvest originally ended with Cusack committing a minor act of kindness for a friend by lending him a can of gasoline for his trailer, then getting rolled over when the trailer backs up. The film really should have ended with Cusack lying in a pool of his own blood at the side of a desolate highway, just another victim of a cruel and arbitrary universe, but Ramis, ever the pragmatist, decided to give audiences a happy ending, with Cusack and Platt riding off into the sunset.
It was for naught. The film failed to recoup even its comparatively tiny $14 million budget—it’s safe to assume Cusack and the Boxcutters’ drummer both worked for much less than their usual salary—and scored a paltry 46 percent on Rotten Tomatoes despite the film’s impressive literary and cinematic pedigree. That’s a shame, since The Ice Harvest manages to stay true to both the fatalistic, blackly funny ethos of noir and Ramis’ aesthetic. I would stop well short of calling it the best 89 minutes I’ve ever spent, but I enjoyed the hell out of Ramis’ prickly, deeply sad neo-noir.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success