When the screenwriters of “Thin Ice” finally play their hand and reveal their film’s obvious twist ending, that dumb plot point almost eclipses all the other lousy things that came before it. But make no mistake, “Thin Ice” is nothing if not consistently lousy. Set in frigid Kenosha, Wisconsin, the film follows Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear), a shifty and increasingly desperate insurance salesman as he tries to con his way to a tropical vacation. Mickey is the leader of a parade of unlikable, uniformly histrionic and very unfunny characters. Living and being around the residents of Kenosha is nightmarish, but not in the humorous, neo-noir-inflected way that director Jill Sprecher (“Thirteen Conversations About One Thing”) and her co-writer Karen Sprecher want us to think.
Both Mickey and the secondary characters that sparsely populate “Thin Ice” test the dramaturgical guideline that dictates you don’t need to like a protagonist to want to know what will happen to them. Mickey’s a chiseler and a swindler. When Bob Egan (David Harbour), a nebbish prospective new partner, says that he wants to make sure that they don’t over-insure a new client, Mickey predictably replies that that’s impossible. Mickey is ostensibly such a mundane and unostentatious con man that, until the events of “Thin Ice,” he’s been able to get away with everything short of murder.
But throughout “Thin Ice,” Mickey’s luck has run out. The film begins with an award ceremony where Mickey is applauded for being a pillar of the salesman community. And it’s all downhill from there. For starters, Mickey’s unable to worm his way back into his own home after having taken money from his now fed-up wife Jo Ann (Lea Thompson)’s bank account. Mickey’s female troubles continue when secretary Judy (Michelle Hutchison) sheepishly reminds him of the raise she’s been promised; naturally, Judy doesn’t get promoted. Still, with so much drama in his life, Mickey needs a break. And Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin) looks like he could be Mickey’s meal ticket.
Gorvy is a senile old man that lives alone with his dog and has a cartoonishly thick European accent (it evokes Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood”). Mickey is confident from the get-go that he can sell Gorvy an expensive home insurance policy and he does. But then Mickey notices that Gorvy owns a violin that, through a home-visit appraisal, Mickey discovers is worth a whopping $30,000. Mickey sees the violin as his ticket to paradise and decides to steal it. But complications soon ensue, including a murder that involves Randy (Billy Crudup), a hyper, mustachioed locksmith that’s determined to do whatever it takes to stay out of jail.
The protagonists’ behavior in “Thin Ice” is dictated by their current precarious circumstances. So they’re all irritating because of those aforementioned circumstances. Firstly, Mickey’s a milquetoast bandit that still thinks himself a smooth operating big fish in a small pond. Realistically, he’s only a cipher. So, provided that the film’s supporting cast are worth a damn, his lack of an identity shouldn’t theoretically matter.
Too bad Bob, Gorvy and Randy are all just as shrill and unbearable. Arkin hams it up as Gorvy, a doddering old man whose sole reason to exist in “Thin Ice” is to unwittingly vex Mickey’s hare-brained plans to get rich quick. His character’s accent, the spawn of borscht belt humor, soon becomes irritating, as does Gorvy’s tendency of puttering around and yammering about his “doggy” Petey. Likewise, Crudup’s Randy is insufferable because he’s constantly over-the-top and always in an annoyingly quirky way. When Randy gets mad, he smashes an ice cream cone on the dashboard of Mickey’s car. That childish act is meant to be one of many signs of how desperate and creatively stunted the film’s characters are. But it also looks a lot like an impotent performer acting out his frustration with the threadbare material he’s delivering.
Only Harbour’s Bob seems to walk away relatively unscathed but that’s mostly because his character is relatively underseen throughout “Thin Ice.” Bob’s a sycophant, a guy that’s only tiresome in small doses. By comparison, Mickey, Gorvy and Randy are all over-achievers when it comes to getting you to want to flee Kenosha. Realistically, that’s the effect the Sprechers are going for. But the intolerable nature of their film’s misfit protagonists isn’t a sign of quality any more than a joke made at someone’s expense is a means of bonding with the joke’s target. [D-]