There are a lot of movie directors who spend their entire careers working in a single genre. In a fickle industry where a couple of bombs can lead to prolonged unemployment, there's a certain job security in mining similar subject matter. On the rare occasion when a filmmaker does step out of character, they frequently find themselves chastised by critics and ignored by audiences that are shackled with expectation. Apparently, these concerns didn't weigh heavily on Harold Ramis when he decided to make The Ice Harvest.
A dark yarn with a moral compass as slippery as the setting, The Ice Harvest is a far cry from the flicks that made Ramis. In fact, nothing in Animal House, Caddyshack or Stripes even remotely resembles classic film noir, whereas The Ice Harvest is steeped in that pedigree. Arriving in stores today on DVD, the director credits the movie's writer and the creators of Fargo for inspiring him to step out onto the Ice.
"I'd been reading all of Richard Russo's fiction and the quality of the writing was just tremendous," Ramis shares in an interview with TVGuide.com. "His [Ice Harvest] screenplay was smart and mature. I'd always been a big fan of that kind of film like what the Coen brothers [Joel and Ethan] do. They try to keep you at a distance and not really invest in their characters. That's part of the joke. Oddly though, The Ice Harvest is a bit warmer, because no matter how bad John Cusack's character gets, you still want to care about him."
While audiences may care about Cusack's Charlie, he's certainly not the type of guy you'd want your sister to bring home. As Cusack's seedy interactions with like-minded self-serving characters played by Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt and Connie Nielsen begin to pile up, it soon seems impossible to believe that this is the same guy who clutched a boom box over his head in Say Anything. Even more difficult to fathom is that it's all orchestrated by the same guy who once had Bill Murray gleefully drive a car with a groundhog. It is that 1993 comedy, however, that Ramis most likens to The Ice Harvest.
"The Ice Harvest is a story of what happens when people fail to find meaning in life. That's the flip side of Groundhog Day," claims Ramis. "That movie is about what life becomes when you're able to discover meaning. Strangely, I see them as light and dark companions to one another. They are both about existentialism. They both ask, 'In the absence of some kind of organized religious theory, what does life mean? What is it for?'"
They may be comparable thematically, but box-office tallies for The Ice Harvest couldn't be more dissimilar to Groundhog Day's. Earning less than $9 million domestically after its October 2005 release, the film is relying on DVD revenue to recoup its budget. When asked if that practical matter of profitability might affect whether his next projects stray from the comedy realm, Ramis responds confidently.
"Not at all. Critically, I got reviews [for Ice Harvest] that are as good as I've gotten for any movie. But even without that, I make movies for myself. Not selfishly, but I figure if I'm not interested, why would anyone else be? You see so many movies in the marketplace that are calculated from Day 1. Sure, you can always get a certain segment of the audience to come out if you show a spaceship or a dinosaur, but if you really want to do good and important work, you've got to go with your own instincts."
And Ramis' instincts should not be underestimated. As the writer of Animal House, his influence can clearly be seen in recent hits like Old School. And despite the fact that they were made years ago, classics like Caddyshack and Groundhog Day continue to garner new fans every day.
"I'm constantly asked to speak to audiences about Groundhog Day. It has a continuing reverberation through the spiritual community, through film studies.... People are interested in that film because there are ideas [in it] worth talking about," he explains. "Caddyshack, on the other hand, is a film that got really mediocre reviews when it first came out, but over the years it's actually gotten more [acclaim]. It started out as a two-star movie and suddenly it had [earned] another star at a certain point. The long-lasting public embrace is really something."
Hopefully for Ramis, that public embrace will stir up some interest for The Ice Harvest now that it's on DVD. It might embolden the director to take further chances, because even though Ramis says a film's financial success doesn't affect him, his next project is, not surprisingly, a comedy, starring Owen Wilson.