That sound that you hear is a thousand critics racking their brains trying to find original ways to reference Fargo when discussing Thin Ice, a vaguely comic pseudo-thriller set in cold Midwestern climes that works a similar conflict between all-American blandness and snowballing criminality. But unlike the Coen Brothers’ 1996 classic, whose comically extreme regional accents and fearless dive into surreal grotesquerie gave it the feel of an All-American fever dream, Jill Sprecher’s film, featuring Greg Kinnear as a veteran insurance salesman whose slowly unraveling life leads to his taking some ill-advised extreme measures, is decidedly naturalistic. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a near-fatal problem.
A shame, too, because Kinnear is kind of perfect here as a smugly mild-mannered insurance hotshot Mickey Prohaska, a guy who dreams of status and a Caribbean getaway even as he presents an outward façade of chummy, contented rectitude. But all is not well: His wife (Lea Thompson — where has SHE been all these years?) has abandoned him after he blew the family nest egg on a nice car, and, desperate to set things right, Mickey is desperate for cash. He thinks he’s lucked out when he runs into a somewhat batty prospective client (Alan Arkin, who should never again do an accent), who just happens to have a $35,000 violin lying around and who just happens to not realize it. But what seems like an easy grab for cash quickly, and somewhat predictably, turns into something far more complicated and gruesome — especially after Mickey reluctantly involves a hotheaded ex-con alarm system installer (Billy Crudup, providing a much-needed jolt of energy) in his rapidly improvised scheme.
That is, of course, not the entire story, but the script sure does seem to take its time getting there, loading us up with a lot of dry detail about insurance transactions and Mickey’s predicament. There are a lot of seemingly random early incidents — an encounter with a drunken prostitute, for example — that feel a bit out of place. The film has no sense of shorthand, making seemingly basic character points feel like work. Partly, of course, this is because we’re being secretly set up for other, later plot points — the last act in particular sends things spiraling into a somewhat Mamet-esque direction.
The problem, really, is that this type of ordinary-people-caught-in-increasingly-extraordinary-circumstances narrative best works in a heightened, unreal context — be it the aforementioned mannered weirdness of a Fargo or the self-aware cool of a Pulp Fiction. Thin Ice tries to play everything straight, which means that our bullshit detectors are firing from the get-go, and that’s a tough situation for a movie to be in. It’s not that we don’t like to be manipulated and fooled — quite the contrary — but we usually don’t like to be fooled so easily. Lacking any real sense of style, or beauty, or wit, or sheer brazenness, Thin Ice is too demure. It wants to fool us, but it doesn’t want to give us anything in return.