Sunday, February 19, 2012

Thin Ice

There's a lot to like in Jill Sprecher's bitingly cold Kenosha black comedy "Thin Ice," starring Greg Kinnear as a fast-talking Wisconisn insurance salesman living beyond his means. A big score appears in the form of a dotard customer (Alan Arkin) who doesn't seem to realize he owns a violin, or how valuable it may be. In trying to pry it away, Kinnear encounters Arkin's relentlessly sunny neighbor, who always seems to check up on the old guy at the most inopportune time; the powder-keg ex-con (Billy Crudup) Arkin has annoyingly hired to install a home alarm system; and an ethical luthier (Bob Balaban) who maddeningly insists the fiddle be sold on the up and up.

The movie conveys a strong sense of place, and much of the dialogue rings true. Arkin gives his most recognizably human performance in recent memory. Crudup has long been a personal favorite of mine. And Balaban is just right as the conscience Kinnear doesn't want to hear. So where does the picture go wrong?

For starters, we never buy Kinnear as a glib commission machine. There's always been a put-upon, sad-sack victimhood to Kinnear, going back to "As Good as It Gets," and in his best movies he plays on it to endearing effect. Here, he's miscast. Also, the movie's spell of quiet verisimilitude is broken by increasingly frequent and graphic episodes of violence. This problem also plagued Balaban's 1988 social satire "Parents," whose clever comments on 50's America got drowned in pools of cannibalistic blood. Finally, the movie ends with an explanatory coda in which we're surprised to learn just who's been zooming who, which is too neat by half and doesn't produce that delicious aha moment of so many better films.

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