Indie filmmaker Jill Sprecher and her co-writer sister Karen have had a small but impressive career, not only for their work on HBO's Big Love, but also as the creative team behind Clockwatchers and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. Both films were small gems, boasting smart scripts, keen performances and a distinctive style. You can see traces of those things in the wintery noir of Thin Ice, but after some brutal and clumsy tinkering by the film's distributor (a situation that drove the sisters to disown the final cut despite their contractual inclusion in the credits), what has landed on screen is a fitfully engaging black comedy that plays like a poor man's mash-up of Fargo and Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, before seriously derailing in its overexplained final act.
Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) is a smarmy insurance salesman from Kenosha, Wis., always angling for the next contract and boasting very few scruples. He is estranged from his wife (Lea Thompson), has pilfered $30,000 from his stepson's college fund to pay for a new Caddie, and is not above filching affable rookie agent Bob (David Harbour) from a local competitor. Still, the guy struggles to keep his head above water. Luckily, he meets Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin), a befuddled old man who has inherited a rare violin worth $25,000, but is completely unaware of its value. Concocting a plan to snatch the violin and use a Chicago expert (Bob Balaban) to sell it to a wealthy collector, Mickey quickly finds himself in an avalanche of unforeseen and tortuous complications that involve a violent home security installer (Billy Crudup, with Kinnear above), a nosy neighbor, a missing dog, and a body that needs to be cut into a pieces and stuffed into a frozen lake. What keeps Mickey on the hook is an incriminating photo and the revelation that the violin may actually be worth more than a million dollars.
Kinnear was made for roles like Mickey — self-serving, amoral and in way over his head. And, surprisingly, though he is a pretty unlikable protagonist, we hang in with his ever-growing frustrations, watching as he's swallowed by the moral quicksand he's decided to wade into. Still, Thin Ice (originally titled The Convincer) never properly ratchets up the tension, moving at a too-leisurely pace that relies on its droll and off-kilter sense of humor to get by. Mickey needs a defining moment, an instance where he can melt down and reshape himself into an active participant in his own story. It never happens, and Kinnear's modest charms aren't enough to compensate.
Arkin, as expected, is terrific as the lovably senile Gorvy, and the idiosyncratic supporting cast is strong, but it's Crudup who steals the show. Hilariously hair-triggered, he brings a much-needed dose of danger and manic energy to the proceedings. His brutal annihilation of an ice cream cone on Mickey's dashboard is truly a sight to behold.
Where evidence of an outside re-edit is most noticeable is in the film's rushed, gotcha-finale. Just when Mickey's situation has been twisted into a horrendously entertaining knot, things shift into a clumsy, high-speed montage with a voiceover that reveals everything you've seen from another angle, endeavoring to neatly tie up every loose end. It's a lazy and unsatisfying choice that culminates in a falsely amiable conclusion.
In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jill Sprecher discussed how Thin Ice's final edit was taken out of her hands and chopped by nearly 20 minutes. That the formidable talents of her and her sister still manage to peek through is a minor miracle, turning what could have been an easily dismissed February misfire into a modestly engaging night at the movies.>
Opens Friday, March 2, at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).