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Why <i>The Ice Harvest</i> Is One of Harold Ramis’s Best Movies

Many of the testimonials about the life and career of Harold Ramis, who died Monday morning in his native Chicago, will deservedly highlight his involvement -- as either a writer, director or actor (and occasionally all three) -- in such superior, generation-defining comedies as Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, Back to School, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Analyze This. There's one deserving movie that may be left out of the conversation, though and that's The Ice Harvest, a wicked, witty little thriller that Ramis directed in 2005.

Treated as one of those sacrificial lambs that's dumped into theaters around Thanksgiving to "compete" alongside movies with bigger stars and marketing budgets (that particular year, Syriana, Yours, Mine and Ours and the movie version of Rent were the marquee attractions), The Ice Harvest sank to the bottom of the box office charts during its brief theatrical life and more or less marked the end of Ramis's directorial career. (Though he eventually scored one more assignment in 2009 helming the dire Year One.) In hindsight, though, the movie occupies the same place in Ramis's filmography that A Simple Plan represents for Sam Raimi and, to a lesser extent, Fargo does for the Coen Brothers: it's a darkly funny account of the bad things that bad people will do to each other when personal profit is involved.

Also connecting it to those other movies is its Midwestern setting, specifically Wichita, Kansas, from which our sort-of hero, Charlie (John Cusack), is attempting to chart his escape with $2 million in ill-gotten gains from the gangster (the increasingly elusive Randy Quaid) with the aid of his partner-in-crime, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton). Getting the hell out of Dodge Wichita quickly becomes more complicated than either man assumed, as a variety of obstacles crop up that repeatedly delay their departure. There's more than a little bit of Groundhog Day in the way that Ramis presents this mid-sized city as a small town, where folks are aware (sometimes too aware) of each other's business. Additionally, the barely concealed cynicism and world-weariness that underlies Bill Murray's character from that earlier film is seen reflected in these characters… and unlike Phil, they aren't allowed to heal themselves through a grand cosmic hiccup. That bleakness is the main thing that distinguishes The Ice Harvest from much of Ramis's work, where happy endings tend to be the norm even if there's plenty of anger and misbehavior en route to that destination. Had the movie been a hit, it would have been interesting to see whether he continued down a darker path or if it was just a one-off experiment designed to let him blow of some career-accumulated steam.

Either way, The Ice Harvest is a late-career gem that deserves to be rediscovered and appreciated in the coming wave of Ramis retrospectives. And, to make it easy for you, the movie is even currently streaming on Netfix, and can also be found for rental or purchase on Amazon Instant. (Also worth second looks while you're at it: Stuart Saves His Family, one of the odder Saturday Night Live-inspired features and Bedazzled, which isn't a patch on the Dudley Moore/Peter Cook original, but has a few amusing set-pieces if you enjoy watching Monkeybone-era Brendan Fraser being a buffoon and can get past Elizabeth Hurley's flat line-readings.) Movies like Vacation and Groundhog Day obviously have more immediate replay value, but part of the fun of watching The Ice Harvest is the sense of discovery that accompanies watching an artist stretch himself… and succeeding.

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