The attitude is as chilly as the Wisconsin winter in “Thin Ice” (formerly titled “The Convincer”), a movie from the sister team of Jill and Karen Sprecher (“Clockwatchers”) that has some of the feel of “Fargo” but not its peculiar Coen brothers genius. Still, it’s an amusingly twisty trifle bolstered by a first-rate cast.
Greg Kinnear plays Mickey Prohaska, an unscrupulous Kenosha insurance agent who gets robbed by a woman during a convention and returns home to a struggling business and a ruined marriage (his attempts to reconnect with his estranged wife, played by Lea Thompson, are disastrous) with a naïve new assistant (David Harbour) in tow. His one victory is selling a homeowner’s policy to Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin), a reclusive farmer whose mind tends to wander and who lives in a messy house with his beloved mutt Petey.
The plot kicks in when Mickey, badgered by his somewhat nutty new client, is at Gorvy’s house one day when a prissily businesslike fellow (Bob Balaban) shows up to look at a violin that’s part of the old man’s junk pile. He’s an appraiser from Chicago, and assures Mickey it’s a valuable instrument that should fetch a nice sum after it’s restored. Prohaska immediately hatches a plan to get the thing for himself and make a killing on it that will solve all his financial woes. But things quickly begin to unravel when his scheme to replace the violin with a crummy copy is interrupted by a hot-tempered ex-con (Billy Crudup) whom Gorvy’s hired to install a security system at his house.
From this point “Thin Ice” evolves into a comedy of perpetual frustration as Mickey’s hopes are dashed over and over again and the poor fellow finds himself in deeper and deeper water. It’s not unlike the arc that William Macy went through in the picture the Coens set a bit further north—but no worse for that. Other characters are drawn into the escalating mess, most notably Gorvy’s friendly neighbor, who shows up at a most inopportune moment and suffers as a result.
In the end the script turns out to be more “The Sting” than “Fargo,” and an elaborate explanation for everything that’s proceeded goes on so long that it ratchets up the improbability level to astronomical proportions. But a picture like this shouldn’t be judged on the basis of plausibility. Whatever you think of the ending, the fact is that “Thin Ice” goes down easily in the telling, thanks for the most part to its cast. Playing on his talent for insincere charm, Kinnear makes a perfect guy-you-love-to-hate, and while Arkin might not be particularly convincing as a Wisconsin rustic, his hangdog irascibility is always a pleasure. Crudup, who once made a point of playing off his matinee-idol good looks, throws himself into the part of a wacked-out sleaze, and Balaban hits all the right marks as the officious violin expert. Women play a very minor role here—Thompson is pretty much wasted—but the men are good enough so that you don’t mind much.
Though set in the Dairy State, the picture was shot in Minnesota (the Coens’ home turf), and the wintry landscape is appropriately frigid in cameraman Dick Pope’s naturalistic images. Even the leisurely pacing favored by Jill Sprecher and her editor Stephen Mirrione and Alex Wurman’s subdued score fit the muted mood.
It wouldn’t be true to say that “Thin Ice,” like the sheet over a lake in late winter, doesn’t occasionally creak and wobble. But it manages to regain its balance and remain a pleasantly dark diversion to the end, even keeping to its lighthearted mean-spiritedness in an epilogue which suggests that while flim-flam doesn’t always pay, one can try it again and again.