The screening notes to Thin Ice describe the film as “blending dark comedy and delirious Midwestern noir” which to me perfectly describes another film, Fargo, which Thin Ice seems to really want to homage. Thin Ice isn’t Fargo by any stretch of the imagination – it’s less dark and more comedic, at the very least – but it does touch on the similar theme of the Average Joe learning that crime does not pay, no matter how perfect it seems.
…Or does he? Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) is a miserable, middle-aged insurance salesman whose tiny Wisconsin insurance office not only seems to be on the verge of collapsing, but his wife (Lea Thompson) kicked him out of the house. Opportunity knocks when Mickey befriends an elderly farmer, Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin doing his best German-Wisconsin accent). Mickey manages to convince Gorvy to purchase property insurance despite owning a house full of junk. But Mickey soon learns by accident that it isn’t all junk – Gorvy is in possession of a rare, expensive violin. Mickey then concocts a plan to swipe the violin, sell it off, and use the cash to restore some order to his life.
Of course, as always, the best laid plans of mice and men…
There’s an abrupt shift in tone at this nearly-halfway point in the film as the violin theft goes horribly wrong. Suddenly what seemed to be a movie about a slimy insurance agent becomes a consequences-of-a-crime movies (like, as I said before, Fargo). Mickey ends up involved over his head and paired with Randy (Billy Crudup), an ex-con locksmith. Crudup, an actor who has never gotten the recognition he deserves (I have never seen him in a poor performance or in a bad movie… but then again I never saw Eat Pray Love) is both funny and frightening as a total psychopath, and even manages to make smashing a Drumstick™ ice cream cone look intimidating. As always, the lie snowballs and the pressure boils over, and there’s a nice visual touch of Mickey’s prized Cadillac (he claims you can’t sell insurance if you’re driving a crappy car) getting dirtier and dirtier, like his conscience.
The script, co-written by director Jill Sprecher and her sister Karen (who performed the same functions on Thirteen Conversations About One Thing), is too clever because the pieces fit together too well, with the last 15 minutes of the movie saturated with exposition putting it all together for the viewer – although Kinnear’s character, who is doing the exposition, couldn’t possibly know all the details of the events he explains. No spoilers, but it’s a rather complicated wrap-up that is all too safe, avoiding any sort of consequence, thus not actually showing that crime doesn’t pay – in fact, it actually seems to pay off decently (though ultimately not decently enough – the payout definitely doesn’t seem worth the trouble). Rumors claim that the film was re-cut with this ending against Jill Sprecher’s wishes, and if that is true I might have to take back my criticism of the script and the ending if she intended something much better.
As a result, the story is a bit of a letdown, but the film’s cast is wonderful – Kinnear, Crudup, and Arkin are all excellent, and there are equally strong supporting performances from Thompson, David Harbour (Quantum of Solace) as Kinnear’s salesman, and Christopher Guest veteran Bob Balaban as a nebbish violin expert. It would be perfectly acceptable to ignore the logical holes in the “mystery” that is presented and enjoy the film on the basis of the actor’s performances – something I believe is called “entertainment.”
Still, I would tend to suggest filmmakers to avoid making films that are too evocative of previous masterpieces. While Thin Ice is different enough that it isn’t a rip-off of Fargo, it does seem like a lesser-quality copy of it. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it doesn’t say much for creativity.
Rating: The great acting performances carry a story that has more than a few holes (7.5/10)