It Isn’t Groundhog Day, But Ramis’ Latest Is a Strange Trip

Harold Ramis’ The Ice Harvest, from a screenplay by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, based on the novel by Scott Phillips, plays out as a blacker and bleaker film noir than anything Mr. Ramis, Mr. Russo and Mr. Benton have ever undertaken in the past. Mr. Ramis, in particular, came into prominence in the 70’s and 80’s by becoming involved as a writer, director and sometime actor in a series of Saturday Night Live–like movie burlesques, with smidgens of social consciousness smeared on such iconic farceurs as the late John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. Mr. Ramis does have one masterpiece to his credit, Groundhog Day (1993), a triumph of conception and execution hilariously focused on Mr. Murray’s expressionistic exasperation at having to relive the same day over and over and over again.

Lately, however, Mr. Ramis has been steadily losing comic traction with the impromptu comedy team of Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal in the gangster-shrink shenanigans of Analyze This (1999) and its even lamer sequel, Analyze That (2002), and so he may have felt that it was time to vary his palette with some darker paints. Mr. Benton dealt with period gangsters in the film adaptation he directed of E.L. Doctorow’s nostalgic novel Billy Bathgate, but the predators there were more whimsical and less nihilistic than they are in Mr. Phillips’ take-no-prisoners scavenger hunt of a novel. The book, in fact, is much too brutal to be taken straight, even in a film noir.

Hence, Mr. Benton, Mr. Russo and Mr. Ramis are to be commended for recognizing this fact. If ever there were a time for a reprise of Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa (2003), this is it—and who better to play the bad Santa in The Ice Harvest than the original bad Santa himself, Billy Bob Thornton? As Vic, Mr. Thornton is a co-conspirator with John Cusack’s Charlie in a scam to fleece their mob boss of $2 million, then skip town in the midst of an ice storm. At least that’s the plan, but one never knows with a perpetually nervous antihero like Charlie, who seems to float through most of the film in an alcoholic haze, going from one seedy strip joint to another in Wichita, Kan.—a setting that is about a million miles from the humdrum Kansas of Dorothy and Toto.

Though Charlie and Vic don’t spend much time together until the fateful, corpse-filled climax, they are a perfect study in comic contrasts. Charlie compulsively talks too much for his own good, while the tactically taciturn Vic never lets his right hand know what his left hand is scheming. Both men have gone through disastrous divorces, both have lost their children, and both have neglected to buy any Christmas presents for them. Charlie does have a buddy of sorts in the even more drunken Pete (Oliver Platt), who is the only comparatively legit major character in the film (he’s an architect), though also bitterly divorced. One of the film’s comic highlights comes with Charlie and Pete’s invasion of an ex-wife’s “family” Christmas, complete with children and grandparents and a seething stepfather. After this scene, one is unavoidably reminded of the familiar statistic that homicide and suicide rates both rise during the Christmas season.

Completing the roster of non–Kris Kringle characters are Connie Nielsen’s accomplished femme fatale, Renata, who, like Charlie and Vic, is a manager of a mob-run strip club; Randy Quaid as mob boss Bill Guerrard, who comes all the way from Kansas City on Christmas Eve to find out what Charlie and Vic are trying to pull; and Mike Starr as Bill’s henchman, Roy, who spends most of his screen time in a footlocker trying to bargain for his life. Ms. Nielsen’s Renata is icy cold in her calculations, and an object lesson in how to play a lethal charmer plausibly without losing any of her erotic appeal. She alone is worth the price of admission, and a sufficient reason for me to go see anything in which Ms. Nielsen appears.

The world on view in The Ice Harvest is so universally corrupt that even the almost-accidental fatal shooting of a policeman doesn’t slow up the flow of quasi-hallucinatory incidents that gives the film a genuinely nightmarish quality. I can understand its very mixed reviews, as well as its not being everyone’s cup of tea.

Still, I can’t join in the criticism of the film’s last-minute softening of Charlie in the way of compassion for his fellow man. To follow the book to its final ironic oblivion would have made the movie completely unpalatable, which it is very close to being right now. What reviewers sometimes forget is that characters in movies, played by flesh-and-blood actors, can never be as disposable as they are in books, where they are made up of words, words, words. Charlie is hardly alone in this world as a self-pitying sinner with few (if any) scruples about what he has to do to survive, but we seldom see this brand of existential extremism prominently depicted on the screen. This alone makes The Ice Harvest worth seeing.

Desperate Characters

Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica, from his own screenplay, deals with a delicate subject that has seldom, if ever, been explored on the screen with this degree of clinical detail. The subject is transgendering—in this case, from male to female. As the film opens, a seeming woman named Bree (played by Felicity Huffman in a curiously and, at first, distractingly artificial style) is soon identified as a male in an intermediate stage of a sex change into a woman.

So here we have an Emmy Award–winning television actress from the popular series Desperate Housewives pretending to want to be what she already is in real life. One wonders if a similarly well-known male actor would be as acceptable (or as convincing) in a similar male-to-female role reversal. Transvestism is one thing, as Cillian Murphy demonstrated so brilliantly in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto—but the whole nine yards is quite another. Hence, there’s more than a little play-acting in Mr. Tucker’s visual frankness with both male and female nudity, which in this context is more embarrassing than erotic.

The title of the film has a double meaning, in that the “trans” refers not only to sex change, but also to a long, folksy car trip from New York to California necessitated by Bree’s belated discovery that she sired a son 17 years earlier, in her one heterosexual alliance in college—one that was already semi-lesbian in spirit, as she confesses to Margaret, her analyst. Bree never knew about the existence of Toby (Kevin Zegers) until she learns that he has been jailed for soliciting men on the street. She has to leave her job as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant in L.A. temporarily to fly to New York and take charge of him. Not wishing to let Toby know that she is really his father, Bree pretends to be a church worker looking out for his welfare. This involves saying grace in a comically improvised manner, as well as trying to get him off drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. These pitiful reform efforts are mildly amusing with a clearly streetwise scamp like Toby, but at least Bree’s cross-country jaunt removes him from his dubious “environment.”

As the sheer looniness of Mr. Tucker’s plot contrivances, as well as his blithe disregard of geographical and sociological probabilities, begins to engulf Bree and Toby on their cross-country adventures, the viewer may become aware of the undeniably motherly feelings springing up in Bree’s manner. She also becomes a bit of a coquette in flirting with a philosophical, guitar-strumming Native American horse breeder, incongruously named Calvin (although the name is no more bizarre than the name of the Native American actor playing him—Graham Greene).

But the ever-touchy Toby can’t get over an American Indian proudly wearing a cowboy hat. Instead of getting offended by Toby’s surly bigotry, the warm-hearted Calvin gives Toby a cowboy hat at the end of their journey together; he then confesses his criminal past to Bree and gives her his card in case she ever wants to visit him. Calvin has actually rescued Bree and Toby from the perils of the open road after their car is stolen by a young hitchhiker that Toby has insisted on picking up, despite Bree’s vehement objections. Bree looks on helplessly and disapprovingly as Toby and the young stranger share a nude swim together in a lake; right after that, the stranger hops in Bree’s car and drives away. If it weren’t for Calvin’s timely intervention, who knows what might have happened to Bree and Toby—except that the narrative conventions Mr. Tucker has tapped into won’t allow anything seriously injurious to happen to the two before they’ve completed their respective journeys, with Bree on an operating table for the final stages of her sex-reassignment surgery and Toby in Hollywood appearing in a male porn film.

The most biographically revelatory sequence in the film reunites Bree with her seemingly well-to-do but estranged family, consisting of a still comically disbelieving sister; a horrified mother named Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan), who is presented as something of a horror herself; and a weirdly benign and totally miscast Burt Young as Murray, the mysteriously understanding father.

Toby goes into a hissy fit when he finally discovers that Bree is his real father, not an otherwise inexplicably concerned church lady. When Elizabeth becomes giddy with excitement over her newfound grandson, Toby toys with the idea of staying on with Bree’s family as he lazes in their private pool—but the call of the wild proves too strong, and he disappears the next morning. By this time, I was perplexed to discover that any character in the film could be surprised by anything.

There are far too many calls of nature for my taste, attributed by Bree herself to all the diuretics she’s been taking as part of her treatment. It is a wonder indeed that she retains her incipient womanly dignity and sensitivity throughout her ordeals. Bree comes off the sturdiest of heroines by returning to a workaday normality after teetering on the edge of the abyss. In her final, very quiet reconciliation with Toby, she becomes what her own mother never was: a non-judgmental maternal presence in his ever-troubled life. Ms. Huffman’s greatest acting achievement as Bree is her ultimate unleashing of an intelligence and level-headedness that is truly beyond gender.

Next Keaton? Gromit!

I sometimes wish that I could become addicted to animated films, non-narrative abstract cinema, and even the most audacious new ventures in the nonfiction-film category. Why am I instead perpetually committed to live-action cinematography in the service of dramatic narrative performed by the immortal mortals of the acting profession as my cultural drug of choice? I suspect that I am simply too old to know better.

I’m prompted to make these semi-rhetorical avowals of my self-imposed specialization in response to the impending 35th Anniversary of the Anthology Film Archives, sustained against all odds by Jonas Mekas, the one man most responsible for the accidental spark that set off my own thoroughly enjoyable career in film criticism and scholarship. My only regret is that I haven’t been able to embrace the totality of cinema as productively and creatively as Mr. Mekas has done throughout his long career. Thank you again, Jonas, and happy anniversary.

I am also prompted to these thoughts by my belated viewing of Nick Park and Steve Box’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, from a screenplay by Bob Baker, Mark Burton, Mr. Box and Mr. Park. This happens to be the feature-film debut of the reportedly popular duo—cheese-loving inventor Wallace and Gromit, his mercifully mute, ever faithful and marvelously adroit canine companion. Why do I say “mercifully mute”? Simply because I can’t stand the affectedly comic voices attributed to, among others, Peter Sallis (as Wallace), Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter. Don’t get me wrong: I have long admired Mr. Fiennes and Ms. Bonham Carter in a variety of live-action roles; in fact, I even accepted Ms. Bonham Carter’s voice work in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride earlier this year. But I found all the voices in Wallace & Gromit unpleasantly screechy and thereby unreal.

Still, despite its vocal distractions, this clay-animation comedy adventure managed to dazzle me with its sheer audacity and inventiveness. Which gets us back to the “mercifully mute” Gromit, whom a friend hailed as the most concise example of comic expression since Buster Keaton—and I thoroughly agree. What Gromit shares with Keaton is his uncanny affinity for technology, and his ability to anticipate and deflect all manner of danger to himself and his beloved master. But first and foremost, Gromit, like Keaton, is the quintessential realist, always calculating the odds in his ongoing struggle for survival.

The high point of Gromit’s performance—and here again I agree with my friend—is his prudent expression of refusal when a dog who belongs to his master’s enemy pleads to be let into the locked car so as to escape a rampaging were-rabbit. Gromit eloquently says “no way” with a gentle shaking of his head and a slight rolling of his eyes. It is pure magic.