Almost 20 years later, there has yet to be a film noir that out-Fargos the Coen brothers' Fargo.
Jill Sprecher's Thin Ice takes a run at it, to be sure. But it's too clever for its own good and, as a result, gets tangled in its own web.
Sprecher, who wrote and directed the underrated Clockwatchers (1997) sets her film in the frozen wastes of rural Wisconsin, a benighted and wintry country full of gee-whiz types and aging farmers with semi-Scandinavian accents. In the midst of this, like a fox in a henhouse, resides Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear), the only fox who seems unable to pluck the willing fowl that surround him.
Not that he's not trying. Mickey's a wily one, always looking for an angle -- and aghast when a would-be protégé announces that he talked a customer out of buying too much insurance. There is no such thing, in Mickey's book.
Mickey is struggling to keep his agency afloat, eager to reconnect with his estranged wife (Lea Thompson) and desperate for just one big sale to keep the creditors away from his door. Then he meets Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin), an absent-minded old farmer who may just own an exceptionally valuable antique violin.
Mickey even figures out how to switch out the old violin for a fake and cash in himself -- but things keep getting in his way. Before he knows it, he's somehow involved with an electronic burglar-alarm installer (Billy Crudup) and a murder, with the body stuffed down an ice-fishing hole on a local lake.
As Sprecher unspools this unholy tale, Kinnear gets edgier and ediger, a guy one step ahead of discovery, a fatalist with one foot on the dock and one foot on the departing boat who somehow manages to keep from falling into the water -- for now.
But Sprecher also wants to mine the vein of dark humor she thinks she's found; in that respect, she comes up empty-handed. Crudup, as a guy with what seems to be an anger-management problem, has the right Yosemite Sam-style instincts, but not the material to make it funny. Kinnear, who knows his way around a wisecrack, has little that's wise to say. Arkin, usually a reliable performer, here is stuck in dotty-old-man mode, with a variable accent to boot, one that migrates from Scandinavia to the Balkans and back over the course of the film.
As a result, while Thin Ice may surprise with its conclusion, the only real surprise is how long it took to get there and how glad you are when it's over.
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