Thin Ice (2011)

Posted on July 30, 2014

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I apologize for being late.

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Paul Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) is an insurance salesman, and a liar. His office is full of awards that he made up. He tells massive lies at conventions about his staff and his office, which he actually runs by himself.

As part of maintaining his scam/lie, he brings on another agent, Bob Egan (David Harbour) who chats up Paul at an insurance convention. Paul intends to steal Bob’s leads and sell the policies himself.

Bob introduces Paul to an old man named Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin). Gorvy is an absent-minded old man who keeps all his money in a big glass jar in his house. He also has a violin. Gorvy strings Paul along about the insurance, asking Paul to run errands for him, so Paul learns Gorvy’s schedule and whereabouts, and gets used to going to Gorvy’s house alone.

Paul decides to break in to Gorvy’s house and steal a bunch of his stuff, assuming that some of it must be valuable. He brings in a locksmith named Randy (Billy Crudup) to let him into the house. One of Gorvy’s neighbors gets curious, and Randy kills him.

Randy threatens Paul if Paul says anything about the murder, and forces him to help hide the body. This makes Paul an accomplice, according to Randy.

Somewhere in there, Gorvy has an appraiser come to his house. The appraiser, Leonard Dahl (Bob Balaban), tells Paul the violin might be worth as much as half a million dollars.

Paul sets out to steal the violin and sell it. Randy has been watching Paul to make sure Paul doesn’t go to the police. Randy wants a piece of the action.

Short Version

This is a black comedy of a shaggy dog story.

Long Version

Greg Kinnear can play parts like this in his sleep. That said, he throws himself into the character of Paul Prohaska and gives it his best. The movie does a good job of explaining Paul’s situation and desperation, but doesn’t really get into how or why he got into it. However, the story moves fast enough that you may not notice until later.

As a note to my fellow writers, one thing I found interesting about the movie was how they revealed Paul’s character. The number and size of his lies are not immediately apparent. Instead, we get Kinnear’s charm making Paul likeable. As the movie gradually reveals Paul’s true character, we sympathize with him and rationalize his decisions. By the time we see how truly mendacious he is, we also feel his desperation.

Plus, the movie gives us Randy, who is truly awful. By contrast, Paul is a decent human being.

I said this is a shaggy dog story, because in many ways it is. It goes for 93 minutes, and the wrap-up is very brief, so you may feel like the movie left you hanging. The point isn’t what happens to Paul or what he learns. The point is you can’t con an honest man, and Paul is far from honest.

I have watched many movies and TV shows about con artists (The Grifters, Matchstick Men, Tin Men, Leverage), so I spotted the game in this film fairly early. I’ll talk about the game in a moment. What kept me watching was the suspense.

I never knew when, or if, Paul would figure out the game. I wasn’t sure until the wrap-up who was in on the game. As a result, I had to stay to the end. Never mind that I’ve seen Kinnear play this kind of character before. Never mind that Paul isn’t that likeable. I wanted to see how it all came out.

The Game

The game is called the fiddle game, and in describing it I will give away some of the movie.

One grifter pretends like he can’t pay for something, so he leaves the violin that he uses to make his living with the proprietor while he goes to get his wallet.

A second grifter comes in, sees the violin, and makes a huge offer to the proprietor. Generally, this happens in a public place, like a diner, so the proprietor won’t sell something that doesn’t belong to him. If he offers to sell anyway, the second grifter agrees and leaves immediately to get his checkbook. The two grifters then look for another mark.

The first grifter comes back with his wallet and pays for whatever, and wants his violin back. If the game goes well, the proprietor then offers to buy the violin without admitting what he believes the value to be. The first grifter makes a big show about losing his livelihood, driving up the price as far as he can. Then he takes the money and both grifters leave.

Thin Ice works with that framework. Because they literally use a violin in the movie, I saw the game coming a long way off. That meant I identified Gorvy and Leonard Dahl as grifters, but there are others.

Every story like this holds out the promise of redemption. The dishonest person can be taken by people who are even more dishonest, learn a lesson, and repent. Encountering an example from somewhere further down the path you’re on can make you reevaluate. Or you can race off down the path, eager to get ahead of the suckers coming behind you…

Controversy

I did not realize until writing this that there was a controversy regarding this film. Writer/director Jill Sprecher brought the film to the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, where she sold it. The studios that bought the film wanted “sweeping changes” to increase the pace of the film. The studios replaced the original composer and editor, and there are two stories about the changes. Sprecher says she was never given a chance to participate. The production companies say she refused to participate.

The original film got generally positive reviews at Sundance. The re-cut version (which I saw) has gotten generally negative reviews – although it has a healthy rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

I will just say that there were some spots where the music was intrusive, and some places where the editing was sub-par.

Summary

I thought this was a well-made grifter movie that took the (now) unusual tactic of showing us the game from the mark’s point of view.

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Posted in: Movies