“As Wichita Falls… So Falls Wichita Falls.”
As I come up on the Yuletide, my common practice of watching seasonal fare is in its usual swing. However, in the last few years, I seem to be seeking a balance of light and dark wares whenever I am hip deep in Scotch tape and gift wrap, or the paper cuts that come in-between opening Christmas cards. For every viewing of The Santa Clause, I want to throw in Bad Santa. Have a jones for White Christmas? Then, I want Die Hard or a fave of Joel and I, The Long Kiss Goodnight, on the docket, too.
And when I think of one of my all-time favorite films, one done by the great Frank Capra, my mind wonders over to its antithesis, the Harold Ramis directed The Ice Harvest from 2005. Ah, I see the doubt on your face. Fair warning, some of the plot points for both films are revealed in this two-parter post. If you haven’t seen either, and don’t wish to have your fun spoiled, it’d be best to take in the films first. For the rest of you, I’ll just assume you’ve seen both, or are at least aware of the quintessential Capra film, and I’ll try to convince you I’m not schizophrenic. 😉
“Christmas Eve. Ho, ho, f*ckin’, ho.”
There is a fair bit of discord among book readers and noir aficionados concerning the film adaptation of Scott Phillips’ début novel. The hard-boiled classic, The Ice Harvest. To say the fans of the novel hate the film would be an understatement. Fair enough. However, the bitterly and darkly funny tale adapted to the screen, I contend, purposely hijacked the story’s premise and its Christmas season setting and aimed it directly at a particularly American cinema classic and holiday staple.
In my opinion, the neo-noir The Ice Harvest is really It’s a Wonderful Life for our time (at least for those of who’ve lived through the sub-prime mortgage crisis). In this case, the film is in wolf’s clothing. Keep in mind, too, IaWL is not just the “uplifting, heart-warming, holiday tale” as movie critic A.O. Scott initially recalled in his setup for his Critic’s Pick video from some years back. He followed that sentence up with another, very different, observation:
“… it’s a dark, disturbing fable about greed, exploitation, misery, and disappointment.”
For the 21st century, I believe Charlie Arglist is in point of fact our version of George Bailey, just transplanted from Bedford Falls to Wichita, Kans-as[s] (as his buddy, Peter Van Heuten drunkenly pronounces for his mob-lawyer pal). The clue here is the hat at the start (and the only time he wears it in the film). That intro of Charlie offers him adorned with a similar fedora as worn by George. And both characters have dates of reckoning come their era’s Christmas Eve.
The fact that TIH has John Cusack as the lead should be the next clue about the connection the movies share. I’ve always thought that if there is an actor today that epitomizes the same everyday man-role Jimmy Stewart was known for (no less so than in IaWL), it’s Cusack. In the case of The Ice Harvest, this would be the George Bailey that took Potter’s offer for a job seriously, and ran with it. Think of Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox from last year’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps for a similar betrayal. In other words, screw ‘the Building and Loan’. All of those smarts now play for the other team instead of the downtrodden but close community of Bedford Falls.
You only get close in Wichita if you want to slit someone’s throat.
“Only morons are nice at Christmas.”
Of course, taking Mephisto’s offer not only buys you the dark suit, the black shirt, and the red tie (Charlie’s wardrobe for the film is nothing if not the classic Armani-gangster look as one can get for a mobbed-up attorney), but also enough self-hatred and misery to fuel our protagonist’s desperation to get out of the corrupt town he finds himself in — something George always strived for in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s George’s lot to never achieve exit from Bedford Falls. But, the parallel and foils don’t stop there.
A good many of the characters from Capra’s classic are transferred over; in likewise twisted form, at that. Mary, the dedicated spouse of George who is the abiding strength of their family is turned into Charlie’s ex-wife. The “cold, grasping, hypocritical bitch”, Sarabeth (and soon to be the ex-wife of his bud, Pete). Old man Potter would be Bill Guerrard (the always underrated Randy Quaid), here. Charlie’s mob-boss. If you listen closely to their respective dialogues, they espouse the same cold-eyed pragmatism that cuts through to the truth of the matter in both stories. They’re essentially the same men — they’re just from different rackets.
“Vic, I sue people for a living. You sell them pornography. Roy, hurts people. He makes it so their knees and elbows bend in both directions. That worries me.”
The sexy Violet Bick, done ever so well by the film noir legend Gloria Grahame in IaWL, is represented here by Renata Crest (Connie Nielsen). The femme fatale strip club owner who is in cahoots with the Ernie Bishop counterpart, the pornographer Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) to skim $2 million from the mob. The only reason any of it comes to pass is that she behind the scene pairs Charlie’s brains with Vic’s bal… well, you know what I mean.
The good cop Bert? He’d be the mob enforcer, Roy Gelles (Mike Starr, who seems to have made a living portraying mob muscle on the screen). And who is the angel Clarence in The Ice Harvest, you ask? Believe it or not, I say it’s the drunken Pete (played marvelously by Oliver Platt). Really. Watch the film and you’ll see he’s the only one that tells Mr. Arglist the truth throughout the entire movie. It’s sad, ugly truth. But hey, it’s neo noir. He’s the only real friend the guy has in wintry Wichita.
Whenever Pete is by our anti-hero’s side in the tale, Charlie has no choice but to take his life into account. Again, the continuing analog between the two tales. Charlie’s less than stellar guardian angel takes hits right along with him, too — just ask that one male body part, which takes a jolting journey, if that’s not true. While George Bailey has a life of regrets in It’s a Wonderful Life, Charlie Arglist’s general outlook is very much in stark contrast:
“It’s futile to regret.”
While It’s a Wonderful Life spent a good bit of its running time building its main character’s back story, The Ice Harvest concentrates its scant 90 minutes on the reckoning and revelations of that one critical Christmas Eve. Any background details are quickly filled in by Charlie and Pete along way to the final accounting and the hard-boiled mayhem set to arrive like the ghost of Christmas Future. Still, nothing says soul-searching like these two films; they just go about it differently.
Where George contemplates suicide at a bridge overlooking a freezing river to solve his plight, Charlie merely throws up at his overpass. Yes, things (or holiday movies) don’t get much darker than this film (or as grimly funny). But, this modern mystery crime noir, with an air of jaundice, still maintains an unmistakable Christmas theme. It was unfairly dismissed back in ’05 by critics and audiences — much like those did in 1946 with Frank Capra’s masterwork.
However, I can assure you that Harold Ramis’ tenth film is fast building a following for all of this Christmassy tumult. Based and adapted from said Scott Phillips novel by writers Robert Benton and Richard Russo, it has joined the darker fare offered up for the season, and I’m more than happy to welcome it. “But wait!”, you say. Where is the comparable ‘chance to see what the world would be like without you’ moment in this? Well, my friends, I assure you the premise is there.
It is implicit in the film’s ending, the exact same one the book’s fans despise for its divergent upbeat conclusion. In this circumstance, Charlie Arglist takes the alternative offered him… on his way out of Wichita, the place that has become his Pottersville. He leaves it, along with all those dead bodies left behind, and with all that cash. Just like those who gave us the credit default swap, he gets away clean. And it’s for that reason, I argue The Ice Harvest is an amazing film for our time — or maybe, because of it.
Pete: [waking up in back of Charlie’s car] “Ugh… Where are we?”
Charlie: “We’re in heaven, Pete.”
Pete: “Oh… They got pancakes?”
Charlie: “They got everything.”
Next: we’ll turn back to the light.