In "The Ice Harvest," it's Dec. 24 in Wichita, and the Midwestern city is slipping and shivering under the chilly blast of a sudden ice storm. The timing is disastrous for Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), an unscrupulous lawyer who was planning to skip town with the $2 million he embezzled from mobster Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). Now, Charlie and his partner-in-crime, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), are forced to sit things out, passing nervous time in the strip clubs, dank bars, restaurants and massage parlors that are their regular domain in this film-noirish world.

What to do? Charlie moves restlessly from place to place, trying to lie low. But he's doomed to get caught. He is roped into ushering around his friend Pete (Oliver Platt), who loves to get drunk and draw attention in public places.

Cusack is characteristically likable as Charlie, a tortured semi-loser with a glint of hope. Thornton, who has made a career playing hangdog misanthropes, is a sullen delight as Vic, a schemer untroubled by such things as conscience. And while those other guys are fighting for the money, Platt's busy robbing something else: the movie. Sure, it's every actor's cheap and easy dream to play a drunk, but Platt pours human tonic into that glass.

You're not supposed to find belligerent drunks hilarious. Nor should you chuckle at gunshot executions or sliced thumbs. But "The Ice Harvest" doesn't take its moral measure in the real world. This often macabre comedy allows us to doff such civilized traits as taste and decency. We're free to laugh at anything, and we do. Oh, the shame -- and the good time.

-- Desson Thomson

Billy Bob Thornton, left, and John Cusack are partners in crime in the dark (but funny) film "The Ice Harvest."