Breaking the Ice with 'Harvest' Cast

Focus features

As they shuffle one-by-one into the Beverly Hills Four Seasons conference room, the four stars of “The Ice Harvest” reveal their personas—before they’ve even uttered a word.

Oliver Platt (“The West Wing”) makes the splashiest entrance, answering his cell phone (“It’s my agent”) and fussily heading to grab some water bottles from the courtesy table. Connie Nielsen (“Gladiator”), all business, makes a bee-line for her chair, though her presence hardly goes unnoticed by the score of mostly male college journalists around the room. Director Harold Ramis (“Caddyshack,” “Groundhog’s Day”) surveys the scene and remarks to no one in particular, “I want to sit at the middle of the table.”

But as the individuals settle down in their chairs, it is John Cusack who commands the room. His aloof cool, charmingly erudite quips, and laid-back appearance (sporting the same shocked hair of the film) immediately sets the tone for the interview. In the end, what emerges is a surprisingly profound discussion of the art of acting, musical inspirations, and opportunities for human redemption. But lifting the weighty themes is some lighthearted banter—and at least one mention of a “sexual bus stop in purgatory.”

CRYSTALLIZING THE CHARACTERS

Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, a mob lawyer who, as the narrative begins, has just conducted an apparently successful heist of $2 million on Christmas Eve. The victim is Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), the Godfather of the Kansas City crime syndicate. His partner in crime is alpha male Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton, in a sly reversal of the accomplice role from “A Simple Plan”), who may be playing on Charlie’s insecurities for his own agenda.

Arglist’s insecurities may remind viewers of the “Cusack Character,” the forlorn puppy dog lover boyfriend that has become inextricably tied with the actor since his Lloyd Dobler role in “Say Anything...”

But Cusack rejects Charlie’s place in this long line of lovable losers: “He’s definitely a loser, but I don’t know if he’s very lovable.”

Indeed, Charlie is a neat twist on the Cusack Character, adding a third dimension of moral ambiguity. “Make a character human, and they’re endlessly fascinating,” says Cusack. “You go out and see a bar fight, and [the fighter] looks like he’s Tarzan or from a Schwarzenegger movie, but a second later, you see the regret. We’re just creatures with all these feelings.”

Further perverting the purity of this persona is Charlie’s choice of hang outs. In particular, he seems to spend almost all of his time inhabiting strip clubs and doused in alcohol. “Why someone would spend Christmas Eve at a strip club in Wichita is a philosophically open question,” he says. “How did we end up in this sexual bus stop in purgatory?”

But glimmers of the Cusack Character shine through in his interactions with strip club manager and full-time love interest Renata (Connie Nielsen). The raspy-voiced, loose-bloused vixen and her come-hither advances seem too good to be true to the passive Charlie, and her femme fatality is a constant mystery of the film.

“She’s almost an aesthetic creation…not a real person or a type,” says Nielsen.

Another frequent companion of Charlie’s is Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt), the film’s resident comic relief. Though Pete has a tendency to harm more than he helps (as in a scene where a drunk misogynistic rant leads to his being hauled into the street), it’s easy to see why Charlie keeps the loyal friend close at hand.

According to Ramis, the constant state of inebriation that defines Pete came somewhat naturally to Platt. “I saw Oliver play drunk without any alcohol at all,” says Ramis.

Though Thornton was notably absent among the stars at the press conference, Cusack took care to laud his uninhibited approach to acting. “Billy Bob is kind of a lot like Oliver, where you can’t go down a road that they can’t follow you down,” says Cusack. “It’s a very free way to work.”

HAZY GENRE BLENDING

The starting point for the film was the script, written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, and adapted from a Scott Phillips novel. It’s a nasty, biting little bugger, a film noir bejeweled with shards of sharp black comedy.

Its seedy characters—linked together through mob ties—mingle aimlessly in squalid strip clubs and vast stretches of barren glacial suburbia. They’re all motivated by a common goal: escaping the tedium that lays thick all over Wichita, Kan. It’s a reverse “Wizard of Oz,” with all of the Dorothys and Totos desperately clawing over each other for a glimpse of the Yellow Brick Road.

Though the film is being marketed as a comedy (if one that doesn’t shy away from the occasional coffin-encased gun slinger), “The Ice Harvest” is much murkier and bloodier than the trailers suggest. It evokes both the cold moral grayness and the acerbic humor of “Fargo.”

According to Ramis, the hazy blending of genres is no accident. “By following the map of the script, the film results, it becomes what it is. Then you put a label on it.”

All the actors praise the script, almost to the point of gushing, and admit that it is what drew them to the project in the first place. Platt commends the “beautifully underwritten” nature of the script, which he says allowed them to form their own relationships with the characters. “It’s more fun if we get to fill in the blanks,” he says.

Cusack agrees that with this script, the fun of the process was formulating a complex back-story for his character. “You get to kind of create a human,” he says.

FREEZE FRAME

For Ramis, his sheer love of directing kept him motivated. Though he’s spent some time in front of the camera—most notably in “Ghostbusters,” which he also co-wrote—he says “direction is the best.”

Nevertheless, he does lament “the thrill of being in front of camera. In some delicious moments, I wish I could push [the actor] aside and get in there, especially during love scenes.” Nielsen, sitting beside him, smiles and cringes.

Cusack’s human elements come out most when he talks about the music that motivated his performance. To “reinspire” himself, Cusack turned to music. At one point in filming, Ramis noticed something unusual in the sink in one of his shots, and upon further inspection found that it was Cusack’s iPod.

Indeed, Cusack lights up with interest when asked about the music that motivated his performance. At the beginning of filming, “I gave Harold some mixes,” he says. “I always have music playing in my head…I’m alive for those moments.”

He names Willie Nelson and Daniel Lanois (“everything he does sort of turns to gold”) as recent favorites, and praises the digital music revolution: “iTunes is the greatest invention since the combustion engine.” He also picks “No Expectations” off the Rolling Stones’ classic “Beggars Banquet” as the one song he would have included the film if he’d had the budget.

The studio had a different idea of what was missing from “Harvest”: a more optimistic conclusion. Ramis, approached during the rewrite phase of production, was asked if there existed the possibility that the crooked Charlie might do something good with the money. Ramis says he replied simply that “Charlie goes to orphanage and gives it to some nuns.”

Though the possibility demands a fair bit of optimism, with any luck, “The Ice Harvest” will take a seat alongside “The Blues Brothers”—or any of Ramis’ best work—in the comedy hall of fame. Just look for the one with the bullet holes.

—Staff writer Ben B. Chung can be reached at bchung@fas.harvard.edu.