The Ice Harvest

There is a constituency that is eager to see “The Ice Harvest” because it’s a return to form for director Harold Ramis, whose previous R-rated comedic efforts have included “Caddyshack,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Analyze This.” (“Analyze That,” too, but why remind a man of his mistakes?)

But “The Ice Harvest,” while filthy as all get-out, has little in common with those well-regarded ’80s films, much less the recent Billy Crystal farces. It’s more like “Bad Santa” — or, if we’re comparing it only to other Ramis films, the PG-tame “Groundhog Day,” in that it depicts a man trapped in a small town with no apparent means of escape. In other words, the fact that Harold Ramis is doing something R-rated is not, in itself, reason to be enthusiastic.

Set on Christmas Eve for no reason other than to be iconoclastic — strippers juxtaposed with yuletide cheer? What’s more outrageous than that?! — “The Ice Harvest” is a very dark crime comedy about an amateur thief who realizes thieving is harder than he thought it was. He is Charlie Arglist, a Wichita lawyer whose clients are all mobsters — but Charlie is played by John Cusack, so you know there’s some good in him. Charlie has a frigid ex-wife who is now married to Charlie’s drunken friend Pete (Oliver Platt), who now wishes he’d had the good sense to let the woman stay married to Charlie.

As the film begins, Charlie has just stolen $2.1 million from Bill Gerard, a mobster who employs Charlie to oversee some of his strip clubs in Wichita (a city depicted as nothing but one strip club after another). Charlie’s partner in the crime is Vic, a man with far more experience in this sort of thing; he’s played by Billy Bob Thornton, so you know there’s no good in him.

Charlie and Vic planned to get out of town as soon as they had the money, but now an ice storm has hit and the roads are virtually impassable. If they can duck Gerard’s enforcer Roy Gelles (Mike Starr) and lie low until morning, all will be well. I do not need to tell you, I’m sure, that all does not wind up being well.

The screenplay, based on Scott Phillips’ novel and written by Richard Russo and Hollywood veteran Robert Benton (“Bonnie & Clyde,” “Kramer vs. Kramer”), makes use of its rainy, dreary setting with dialogue and characters reminiscent of Hollywood film noir, including Connie Nielsen as a smoky-voiced femme fatale named Renata. She is the object of Charlie’s affection and a possible traveling partner, if she can escape from the Gerard-owned strip club that she runs.

But is it funny? Yes, for a while. Thornton has played the shockingly vulgar vagabond many times, including in the aforementioned “Bad Santa,” and his persona is well-honed. Besides, his co-star is John Cusack. The film could be nothing more than 90 minutes of John Cusack murdering your mother and you’d still like him.

Problem is, the sacrilege and dysfunction wear thin after about an hour, leaving us with only the plot, which is (by design) composed of just the basic twists and double-crosses of an bloody crime caper. Like so many films based on “outrageous” ideas, it loses steam once the novelty of it has worn off. On the other hand, it does impart some valuable information along the way on the body-storage capacity of a Mercedes. Turns out it’s a lot more than you’d think.

B (1 hr., 28 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, a lot of strip-club nudity, some strong violence.)