I'm dreaming of a noir Christmas

'The Ice Harvest' is a comedy that doesn't know it is one. (And that's a good thing.)

'The Ice Harvest," directed by Harold Ramis and written by Robert Benton and Richard Russo, is a dandy little film noir that is all the better for not being self-conscious about it. It pays homage to the usual noir tropes - the femme fatale, the heist gone bad, the dark bars - but it's freshly conceived, as if the filmmakers had just happened upon the genre because of their own woozy, wary temperaments.

John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, a mob lawyer in Wichita, Kan., who, along with his scurvy associate, Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), has just embezzled more than $2 million from a local boss (Randy Quaid) on Christmas Eve. Charlie wants to cut out of town with sultry Renata (Connie Nielsen), who runs the Sweet Cage strip club. Renata, of course, has no last name.

One look at the two of them and you know Charlie is in over his head. Despite his mobbed-up credentials, he has the look of a patsy; Renata, by contrast, is nobody's fool. When things go awry and Charlie renews his offer to her, she coolly responds by saying, "You want me to run away to be poor?" Seems like a reasonable question.

The entire film takes place over 12 hours, and it never stops moving. The slip-sliding of the characters on the slushy streets is a perfect visual counterpoint to how their lives have skidded out of control. When he's not trying to sweet-talk Renata or get the goods on Vic, Charlie spends a good part of the time boozing with an architect buddy Pete (Oliver Platt), who is now married to his ex-wife. Charlie can't feel pleasure, exactly, but he thinks that as long as he keeps chugging along he'll feel no pain.

"The Ice Harvest" is a comedy that doesn't quite know it's a comedy. (Those are often the best kind.) Everybody thinks the worst of everybody - and still they enjoy each other's company. When Charlie, with Pete, barges in on his ex-wife's Christmas Eve dinner, he knows he's acting like an idiot, but for a brief moment he savors the hominess of the scene - even as he ruins it.

The holiday setting is used for a comic-ironic effect. (First "Bad Santa" and now this - does Billy Bob have it in for Christmas?) The festive cheer that festoons Charlie and Vic are like cobwebs that they have to keep sweeping aside in order to see clearly. Treacle slows them down.

"The Ice Harvest" isn't a subversive piece of work; it's not making some grand statement about the dark side of the holiday spirit. But what it is saying in its grimly funny way is that we can't always control the timing of our disasters. Grade: A-

Rated R for violence, language, and sexuality/nudity.

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