UPDATE: I’ve just (in early 2014) gotten a chance to see The Convincer, Jill Sprecher’s original cut which was well-received at Sundance. I can now confirm that yes, it succeeds in all the ways that the recut Thin Ice failed. I would recommend watching it, but get the Blu-Ray which contains the director’s cut so you can see that instead of the terrible theatrical version.
In 1997 there was a little movie called Flypaper. If you didn’t see it, you’re in good company; it was a bad attempt to ape the style of baroque, darkly humorous crime films like Get Shorty. But without the strength of an Elmore Leonard novel to back it up, the movie crashed and burned. Hard.
I mention this because it’s pretty much the first thing that comes to mind after seeing Thin Ice; in this case, it’s a bad attempt to ape the style of a con movie. I debated how to say it without mentioning con movies, but ultimately I don’t consider it a spoiler since to any fan of the genre the movie’s original title — The Convincer — is a dead giveaway. It’s far from the only one.
Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) is an insurance salesman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a bit of a slick operator at that. In an effort to stymie a competitor he hires away Bob Egan (David Harbour), who immediately comes up with a lead in Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin). Gorvy is a cardboard stereotype straight out of an upper-midwest Ole-and-Lena joke, and he’s got a house full of random junk, including a violin that Mickey finds to appraise at thirty thousand dollars.
That money could resolve a serious chunk of Mickey’s debts and put him right with his estranged wife, Jo Ann (Lea Thompson). So he sets about to act as the middleman — unbeknownst to Gorvy — for the sale to violin dealer Leonard Dahl (Bob Balaban) and swipe the money for himself. But while he slips into Gorvy’s house to swap the real violin for a cheaply-forged copy he runs into some friction with small-time criminal Randy Kinny (Billy Crudup). When Gorvy’s neighbor shows up Randy takes a hammer to his head, making a bad situation worse.
It’s worth going into the backstory of the movie itself; directed by Jill Sprecher and written by herself and her sister, Karen — as were Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Clockwatchers — it started out as The Convincer at Sundance, where it evidently received a somewhat mixed response. In response, the Minneapolis-based production company Werc Werk Works took the film out Sprecher’s hands to re-edit it and slap on the new title, though Sprecher’s name is still on the film rather than Alan Smithee’s.
So the obvious question is this: is this hatchet-job of a midwestern take on the con film the result of the re-editing process, or was it even worse before? Since I wasn’t at Sundance I can’t really speak to this. But there’s so much that never really gels that it’s hard to believe these aren’t deep structural problems that go right down to the original script. As just one example: ice fishing gear uses an auger to bore through the ice on a lake, not a blowtorch. Even I know this, so surely someone who lives in Wisconsin would have a clue that something was fishy.
At heart, it only works if you assume Mickey is not only among the cruelest of pathological liars, but also among the stupidest. At every turn he does something awful and cringe-inducing until only your devotion to find something redeeming. And when the payoff comes, it comes out of nowhere. As far as I’m concerned, the rest of the movie can go back there.
Worth It: maybe The Convincer was, but this isn’t.
Bechdel Test: fail.