The main problem with this more than slightly tongue-in-cheek thriller is its love-it-or-hate-it last act, but spoiling that twist ending would be unfair to anyone who may find its unlikely climax clever.
Greg Kinnear stars as Mickey Prohaska, a struggling insurance agent kicked out of his house by wife Jo Ann (Lea Thompson) for “borrowing” from his stepson’s college fund. Life gets worse when Mickey takes a blond barfly back to his room at a convention and wakes up with his wallet gone, setting in motion a series of misfortunes that go from bad to completely disastrous.
Bob Egan (David Harbour), a naively optimistic new agent, finds a homeowner’s policy prospect that the commission-hungry Mickey poaches behind Bob’s back. That’s slovenly senior Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin), who lives alone in a remote farmhouse. When Mickey hears that a beat-up violin Gorvy says he inherited is worth upwards of $25,000, he plots a way to steal it and replace it with a counterfeit.
The movie’s deliberately paced set-up and the increasingly dark consequences of Mickey’s scheme are nearly as well executed as a Coen Brothers Fargo-era plot. (The action even is set in snowy Wisconsin, filmed in Minnesota.) Kinnear excels as the sort of glad-handing small businessman who insults his secretary’s “female brain” and is just sleazy enough to take advantage of somebody who looks like an easy mark. He’s the kind of likably larcenous loser who hits up his wife for money during a church service and lies about finding a lost pet dead by the side of the road.
Billy Crudup steals the show as a twitchy and scarily menacing ex-con locksmith who turns Mickey’s plans upside down by introducing an unexpected murder into the mix. Bob Balaban is well cast as a fussy expert who reveals that the violin is worth far more than his initial appraisal, making possession of the thing even more perilous. And Arkin is the perfect combination of annoying and amusing as the perpetually perplexed Gorvy, who at one point allows his dog to carry the precious violin outdoors between his teeth.
The suspense is so well handled that it’s impossible not to be invested in Mickey’s stomach-knotting plight. That’s why the movie’s pull-the-rug-out ending feels like such an everything-you-know-is-wrong cheat. The series of coincidences and manipulations that would be necessary for the ending to work are unlikely at best. The particulars are explained in flashbacks, but there’s a problem starting with the very first thread in that elaborate tapestry (small spoiler alert): The boozy blond Mickey picks up at the hotel is not nearly attractive enough to be irresistible.
What’s impressive about Thin Ice is that everything else about the movie is so enjoyable the film is worth seeing despite its last-act letdown. Director Jill Sprecher keeps the indie-deadpan screenplay (which she cowrote with sister Karen Sprecher) from veering into camp, and even the inappropriate ending is guaranteed to make for some interesting disagreements.
[Rating: 3.5 stars]
Thin Ice is released this Friday, February 17, 2012.