Ask most any performer or filmmaker about the old axiom of dying being easy and comedy being hard, and they'll likely tell you it's true. After all, it's not difficult -- whether in front of or behind the camera -- to portray death on the screen and Hollywood's been doing it pretty much since filmmaking first started.
They've also attempted to make people laugh via their plentiful comedies that date back just as far as that violence. Yet, while killings can be made to appear realistic, not everyone has the same unified reaction to humor. As times, perceptions and attitudes change, filmmaking artists have to as well, all while dealing with the basic element that what they find funny, or at least think others will find amusing or hilarious, doesn't always turn out to be the case.
Probably the hardest type of cinematic humor to pull off is the black comedy. That's mainly because viewers have to put aside the way they know they're supposed to feel about unsavory characters and their goals in order to find some level of entertainment from what they're viewing. Then there's the fact that a fine line between gut-busting laughs and revulsion at said dark material obviously exists, and much of that stems from how the plot unfolds as well as how viewers respond to the characters (both perpetrators and victims) and their actions.
Accordingly, there's probably going to be a mixed reaction to "The Ice Harvest," director Harold Ramis' first true stab at the genre (although "National Lampoon's Vacation" and "Groundhog Day" had elements of that in them). In it, John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton reunite (after starring in "Pushing Tin"), this time to steal $2 million from a mob boss played by Randy Quaid who's mentioned a lot but doesn't appear until the very end.
As in most such criminal enterprises, the balance of power between the two is not equal and various complications and unexpected developments then cross their path that's become doubly treacherous due to an ice storm that's prevented their quick getaway. Throw in a femme fatale type character, a drunken louse, some familial issues and more, and the stage would seem set for a devilishly good time.
Unfortunately, and despite most everything seeming comically charred, the overall production feels half-baked. The plot -- penned by Richard Russo and Robert Benton -- isn't terribly complicated in general concept and all of the aforementioned complications and other add-ons don't really have any sort of brilliant tinge to them. Everything feels familiar yet under-inflated. In this sort of offering, you expect and want the pressure to build to the popping point, but what we get here is a rather limp balloon filled with stale, film noir-ish air.
It certainly doesn't help that most of the characters are unlikable, uncharismatic and/or boring. While you might not like such unsavory types in black comedies (and other films in general), at least they occassionally pop off the screen as interesting, compelling or charismatic cinematic creations. This year's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" worked because of just that along with some very snappy dialogue and exchanges.
Neither of that occurs here. Some of that stems from the work behind the camera, but it must also be attributed to those in front. Both Cusack and Thornton play the same sort of character they're often asked to do, and neither brings anything of note to their respective onscreen roles. That's especially true of Thornton who's now getting so pigeonholed playing misanthropes that it's hard to picture him doing anything else.
At least Cusack -- by default of his acting style and general persona -- makes his character a tad intriguing. Unfortunately, the script does him no favors, never explaining why or how he got involved with the gangsters, what made him decide to rob an obviously dangerous criminal, how he got hooked up with Thornton's character, or really anything about the actual heist.
I sometimes like films that start midway in the story (thus bypassing exposition, character introductions, etc.) but this one suffers from that. We want to know more, especially since the rest of the film is often so blasť.
That's not to say it's always dull. There's an amusing bit featuring a gangster in a large foot locker and the two would-be thieves' attempts to deal with him and it. And various lines of dialogue occasionally hit the mark, such as Thornton's character commenting that a mafia thug obviously mistook the level of affection between Thornton and his wife when the thug threatened to kill the wife if he didn't talk.
Sadly, such moments -- which are the key to making such films work -- are few and far between. Oliver Platt tries his best to bring back the lovable drunk character type that Dudley Moore perfected long ago in more tolerant times. While I found him amusing, the act got a little repetitious for me. Connie Nielsen is alluring as the noir type vixen, but her part is severely underwritten. And Quaid seems best cast and most believable in his role, and while he's appropriately menacing, he's not around long enough to make a difference.
While the ingredients are present for such an offering, the overall effort feels both too familiar and half-baked. And it never hits the high marks set by the better entries in the decidedly hard to pull off genre to earn a place among them.