There's something about the frozen Northern Plains, filled with folksy, trusting and righteous Dakotans, Minnesotans and Wisconsinites, that screams "insurance fraud" to screenwriters. The notion that there's nowhere in America quite so honest makes writers want to give the phrase "You can't cheat an honest man" a perverse workout.
That's what drives "Thin Ice,"a darkly funny indie waltz — or polka — down "Fargo"and "Cedar Rapids"lane. Greg Kinnear plays an on-the-ropes, ethically challenged insurance agent who stumbles onto a new customer, tumbles into the idea of defrauding him and steps through the "Thin Ice" and in over his head. A mountain of lies — and murder and blackmail — pile up around him like drifts from a Kenosha, Wis., blizzard.
Mickey Prohaska (Kinnear) likes to put on the airs of a master of the insurance game. It's why he gives seminars at regional insurance conferences, and it's how he cons gullible Bob (David Harbour) into taking a job with his agency (basically, Mickey and a secretary) instead of a competitor.
But Mickey is a guy who takes shortcuts, a guy who bends the truth. It's why his wife (Lea Thompson) kicked him out. It's why his business is in trouble. And it's why, when Bob lands a semi-senile farmer-client, Mickey is more than happy to steal the commission and sell the man more insurance than he needs.
Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin, wheezy, scattered and hilarious) has a little of that salt-of-the-earth plainsman about him. But mostly, he's high-maintenance — touched in the head, a bachelor farmer-hoarder in a remote farmhouse. Mickey, always put-upon, is forced into being more helpful than he'd like. Then he learns that Gorvy has a violin that some famous collector wants. That's when Mickey's character is truly revealed.
"Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see" is his motto. He expects people to cheat him because he cheats. And next thing you know, he's planning to sell Gorvy's fiddle and pocket the cash himself.
Sisters Jill and Karen Sprecher wrote this (Jill directed) and they stack up the complications, the way Mickey's little theft and many little lies overwhelm him. An ex-con locksmith (Billy Crudup, creepy) gets involved, and that's when the film takes a dark and bloody turn.
It's a script that overreaches, with hints of "A Simple Plan" and "Double Indemnity,"as well as the aforementioned "Fargo" / "Cedar Rapids." But you can see why a pretty good cast — Kinnear, Crudup, Arkin and Bob Balaban (as violin dealer) — was drawn to it.
I like the way the film has the hapless Mickey put upon by one and all — chatty locals who take too much of his time, want to "help" in ways that make things worse.
Nothing is quite what it seems, but that makes "Thin Ice" a little too pat, a movie that plays more clever than it is. But it's still an amusingly nerve-racking trek into the snow and out onto the ice with those funny folks in the land of "you betcha."
'Thin Ice' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language, and brief violent and sexual content)
Running time: 1:33