The anti-Christmas Christmas movie is becoming a holiday tradition, like gift returns or drunk driving. Because ''The Ice Harvest" tilts less to Billy Bob Thornton, though, and more to John Cusack, the bile-to-eggnog ratio of this happily cynical seasonal concoction is relatively low. ''Bad Santa" it's not. Bumptiously entertaining it is.
The film has a heck of a pedigree, and that helps. Director Harold Ramis has blown hot (''Groundhog Day," ''Analyze This") and cold (''Bedazzled," ''Analyze That"), but here he keeps the pot bubbling nicely throughout. Scott Phillips's 2000 comic-noir novel has been adapted for the screen by novelist Richard Russo (''Empire Falls") and writer-director Robert Benton (''Kramer vs. Kramer," ''Places in the Heart"), two top-tier talents who've approached this project as an inspired bout of slumming in the wrong neck of Wichita, Kan.
In addition to Cusack and Thornton, the cast includes Connie Nielsen (''Gladiator"), doing her willowy best to channel Lauren Bacall by way of Kathleen Turner, and Oliver Platt, drunk as a skunk from first frame to last.
At the movie's wobbly center is Charlie Arglist (Cusack), a mob lawyer who's a nervous wreck: It's Christmas Eve and he has just stolen $2,147,000 (''and change") from his boss. All Charlie has to do, assures partner in crime Vic Cavanaugh (Thornton), is lay low for the evening and they can skip town by dawn. As soon as this nasty ice storm has blown over.
Said storm leaves an invisible, omnipresent coating of ice on which all the characters skitter and crash -- a rich little metaphor that Ramis wisely doesn't push. He just follows the increasingly paranoid Charlie on his appointed rounds, from a strip club run by smoky-voiced Renata (Nielsen), for whom he is forever pining, to the local brothel (named ''The Velvet Touch" with shabby optimism), to a watering hole where Charlie encounters fellow attorney Pete Van Heuten (Platt). Pete is married to Charlie's ex-wife, and he welcomes his predecessor the way one might a fellow crash survivor.
There's not much plot to ''The Ice Harvest." In its place is a lot of comic bad behavior and a decent amount of bloodshed, as well as a sense that regret is futile in a universe that throws so many ice-balls. Those who think otherwise clutter up the movie's sidelines: a bartender (Ned Bellamy) who's both a psychopath and a family man, a pleasantly threatening local cop (T.J. Jagodowski), a mob enforcer (Mike Starr) the size of a small recreational vehicle.
That the latter proves just as lethal folded up inside a steamer trunk as he does out in the open is one of the movie's sweetly grim jokes; so is the persistent characterization of Wichita as a minor circle of hell, with a huffing, puffing minor demon -- Randy Quaid as Charlie's boss, Bill Guerrard-- in charge. The phrase ''As falls Wichita, so falls Wichita Falls" keeps cropping up throughout the film in the form of mocking graffiti, as though the walls themselves had given up. I doubt they'll be screening this one for the Chamber of Commerce Christmas party.
Ramis and his cast winkle out every bit of the script's droll misanthropy. Nielsen might have given Renata a bit more oomph -- the actress is game but too ladylike -- but Thornton snarls nicely in support and Platt consistently hits it out of the park as a man who loathes everything about his life and no longer cares who knows it. This includes his wife, in-laws, and Charlie's children in one of the more scabrously funny holiday dinner scenes in recent movies.
Pushing 40, John Cusack is starting to age with rattled grace. He's still got that boyish charm going for him -- his innate Lloyd Dobler-ness, for you ''Say Anything" fans out there -- but the cosmic gag of ''The Ice Harvest" is that boyish charm eventually wears thin and after that it's a matter of luck. The film's true subject is the grand comedy of entropy: the way things fall apart and the Yuletide center doesn't hold, and the way the best-laid plans of mice (Charlie) and men (Vic) can go awry when there's black ice underfoot.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.