Slender and pleasant, fitfully funny and, in the end, somewhat unsatisfying, Thin Ice bears all the hallmarks of a Sprecher sisters film – it's the writing team's third outing after Clockwatchers and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. The fact that the film was wrested from director Jill Sprecher's hands and, according to Sprecher in a letter to Roger Ebert, “completely re-edited” to the point where she and co-writer Karen Sprecher “do not consider Thin Ice to be our work” is indeed troubling, but more worrisome is that it's hard to imagine how such a self-contained and ho-hum, reheated crime story could have been any better without the interference.
Greg Kinnear, working in his slimeball wheelhouse, stars as Mickey Prohaska, a low-rent, anything goes insurance salesman who hires a do-gooding up-and-comer named Bob Egan (David Harbour) partly because Egan loans him some cash after a drunken, after-hours rendezvous leaves him strapped. Egan introduces Prohaska to Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin), an elderly, absent-minded, over-trusting client whom Prohaska views as a potential sucker. When it's discovered that an old violin of Hauer's is worth a fortune, Prohaska sticks around, “helping” the old man and working the angles all the while, a device with echoes of last year's far superior Win Win.
When another predator of the elderly man, an alarm installer named Randy, played to the hilt by Billy Crudup, ends up violently murdering one of Gorvy's friends, he blackmails Prohaska into helping him cover it up and the film finally steps into the darkly comical territory of Fargo or A Simple Plan, only without the humor, suspense or engagement. Instead, the violin is employed as the proverbial bag-o-cash, only it's replaced quickly by a fake, its value varies and offers are fielded via fax machine – none of which serves to up the ante of the shitstorm Prohaska has supposedly brought upon himself. It's a needlessly muddled narrative condensed within an inch of its life and yet nothing much of consequence really occurs after the body is buried (under the thin ice of a frozen riverbank).
Thin Ice, however, is somewhat redeemed by its star wattage: Kinnear's whitebread everyman demeanor works well when put under enormous stress and Arkin's old man can be frustrating, touching, even coldly calculating from scene to scene, which is always fun. Crudup, meanwhile, does all he can and more with a one-note role – the perpetually pissed-off criminal – and watching him try to dig his way out of the film's logistical pit is pretty damn entertaining.
Sprecher's glossy sheen, however, makes the proceedings seem too sanitized, even safe, for the film's snowy Wisconsin setting to really register as the scene of countless crimes and the twist ending, whomever's idea it was, is laughably implausible. It's hard to find too much fault in a well-meaning, noir-lite outing that gives Kinnear so much to react to. Let's face it, the guy could make a needlepoint class feel disconcertingly off-kilter; murder and deceit in Nowhere, Wisconsin, is a stroll in the park for him. And that's ultimately the consequence here: It's just too thin.