Cold Scams
by Collin Insley 11:00pm PST, February 22, 2012

Nefarious plans go awry in chilly climes, leaving amoral individuals spinning helplessly as they try to squeeze out from the ever-tightening, vice-like grip of impending comeuppance. Sounds like the Coen brothers masterpiece, Fargo, right? Or perhaps Sam Raimi’s wonderful A Simple Plan, if you’re one who prefers your twists sans bleak humor. It’s neither. No, the film described above is a new entry into the pantheon of like-films: Jill Sprecher’s, Thin Ice.

Starring Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup and Alan Arkin, Thin Ice is the story of scumbag insurance salesman Mickey Prohaska (Kinnear) who, while trying to sell home and property insurance to elderly Gorvy Hauer (Arkin), discovers that Hauer is in possession of an old violin worth millions of dollars – and that the senile old man isn’t aware that he even has said violin. When Gorvy goes on a short trip, Mickey enlists the help of an unstable locksmith named Randy (Crudup), who had previously installed a home security system at Gorvy’s home, to break into the house and replace the violin with a cheapo stand-in. However, things go haywire when Gorvy’s well-meaning neighbor stops by to check on the house. In a fit of rage Randy accidentally kills the neighbor and, not wanting to go back to jail, implores Mickey to help him dispose of the body. All of a sudden, Mickey and Randy find themselves spiraling faster and faster downward, locked in on a collision course with capture. But is everything really as it seems?

Sprecher and her film have the extreme misfortune of being easily comparable to a bona fide masterpiece in Fargo and a truly great film in A Simple Plan. For the majority (key word, there) of its running time, Thin Ice is by no means a bad film – its only sin is that it isn’t great. Director Sprecher turns in a workmanlike effort and the film is a solidly crafted, if easily forgettable, comedic thriller. The basics of the premise are undeniably promising, so what makes the story so forgettable? Well, to my mind, the cracks in Thin Ice were formed long before the film was shot – there’s a fundamental problem in the Sprecher-sister-penned screenplay (Jill’s sister Karen shares writing credit): Mickey Prohaska isn’t a particularly well-written character.

Mickey is an absolute scumbag of a human being. He’s a schmuck with loose morals, and is precisely the kind of individual that gives insurance salesmen a bad name. He’s an awful person. This, of course, in and of itself, is not a big problem, but what is a problem is that Mickey isn’t a fascinating character – he’s simply equal parts deplorable and detestable, mixed with a dash of dastardliness. It’s very, very easy to take your eyes off of him. Sometimes, you can’t help but to.

Or perhaps the problem is in the casting. Unlike William H. Macy’s wonderful, complex portrayal of similarly socially stunted Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, there isn’t a trace of humanity or even the slightest amount of remorse to be found in Kinnear’s Mickey Prohaska. Great acting is finding the hidden layers buried deep within the permafrost of a seemingly loathsome character, and Kinnear, as fun as it is to watch him squirm, just doesn’t dig deep enough here. I don’t see it, at least.

This isn’t to say that Thin Ice doesn’t have its positive points. Billy Crudup is an absolute livewire, and is clearly having a helluva time playing the sociopathic Randy, and Alan Arkin is great, as always. David Harbour may steal the show, though, as ultimate nice guy Bob Egan, the junior salesman who, through only his sheer will to do right by Garvy, continuously and unwittingly complicates things for scheming Mickey. Or is it unwittingly?..

Therein lies the biggest problem with reviewing Thin Ice. The single most critically charged plot point in the entire film can’t really be critiqued for fear of “giving it away.” Well, guess what? I don’t care. So stop reading here if you want to remain surprised when you rent Thin Ice on DVD (because it isn’t worth the price of a movie ticket). The ending of the film sucks. It’s a scam! Literally. Going way back to the beginning, we first meet Mickey as he’s sidling up to a stranger at a Floridian poolside bar, angling to tell him a story (actually, this isn’t clear at all, and the moment is so brief that it’s easy to forget about it altogether). After we see Mickey get his comeuppance, we are treated to some voiceover a la Mickey that may as well be saying, “But wait! It wasn’t a series of incredibly timed, unfathomably unfortunate events – it was a completely orchestrated scam, gosh darn it! Garvy and Randy and Bob – even the old neighbor – they’re all scam artists! And they were working together! And they scammed me! And this is exactly how they did it! Here! Let me walk you through the series of events so that you may understand exactly how those grifters swindled me.”

Ugh. I was the one that was swindled. I should’ve left the theater right then and there. I didn’t. Worse yet, we find ourselves back at the Floridian poolside bar (cue cheesy bookending technique), post-story, and Mickey, after laying his soul bare to this stranger, is trying to sell the poor sap on some time shares… Wait! Is Mickey scamming this guy? Was the whole story fabricated so as to gain this poor man’s trust, so as to better sell him crap? Are we, the audience being double-scammed?!

Perhaps. I don’t really care. I lost interest after the first scam reveal. Because, you see, as a member of any audience, there’s a big difference between being told upfront that you’re in for some tricks and then proceeding to be tricked (see: The Prestige), and being told you’re in for a twisty ride only to have the proverbial rug swept out from under you in a crappy, exposition-filled, codeine-like coda. It’s lazy storytelling. No thank you, I think I’ll pass.