By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
By the time we meet Mickey Prohaska, a hapless insurance salesman from Kenosha, Wis., his tendency to shave the truth has already gotten him in trouble: His marriage is on the rocks and his business is wobbly.
But Mickey’s one of those guys who can’t learn from his mistakes, because it’s in his character to lie. And that character trait leads to the downward spiral traced in “Thin Ice,” a fitfully compelling Northern comedy-gothic.
The plot revolves around Mickey’s discovery, in the course of selling a routine homeowner’s policy, that an elderly farmer (Alan Arkin) possesses a very valuable violin. The somewhat sluggish opening reels, in which Mickey tries to finesse his way into possession of the violin, shift gears to a more dramatic turn of events halfway through.
Yes, murder comes along, in part thanks to the arrival of a live-wire ex-con named Randy (Billy Crudup) who wants to be cut in on the plan. Crudup, once a rising star (“Almost Famous”), has settled into the role of character actor, and he brings the movie a much-needed, slightly maniacal jolt.
Kinnear, too, is well cast; the slick talker with the pasted-on smile is a character he knows all about. He makes Mickey a relentless improviser, a guy addicted to the sheer craziness of fabricating: Each new untruth leads to the next, in a tireless effort to cover himself.
All of this is sustained, although the movie’s effect is odd. The director, Jill Sprecher, has two previous feature credits to her name, and they were both good ones: “Clockwatchers” and “Thirteen Conversations about One Thing,” films that balanced dark comedy with trenchant observations.
Having noted the similarities, we must also note that since the movie’s tour of the festival circuit last year, under the title “The Convincer,” it has evidently been re-edited without Sprecher’s participation. She has publicly distanced herself from the movie released as “Thin Ice.”
There’s talent here, and a sardonic view of a community of souls in which everybody’s out for the big score. The movie’s also got a real sense of place, as the Minnesota locations look very cold, including the frozen-over lake where Mickey and Randy find themselves in the dead of night, looking for a hole in the ice where they can deposit an unwanted burden. If there’s such a thing as a “white noir,” that’s it.
“Thin Ice” (2½ stars)
A fitfully compelling comedy-gothic, about a slippery insurance salesman (Greg Kinnear) who overreaches even his own shifty tendencies when he tries to wrest a valuable violin from a client (Alan Arkin). The movie never quite puts itself in order, even if the pieces are there.
Rated: R for violence, language.
Showing: Meridian, Seven Gables.