By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Nov 23, 2005 at 5:11 AM

If anything, Harold Ramis is known for his humor. Everything he touches, it seems -- from "Caddyshack," to "Groundhog Day," to "National Lampoon's Vacation" -- has been hilarious. And his latest directorial effort -- "The Ice Harvest" -- is no exception.

But this time, and just in time to combat the usual cheese oozing from most holiday films, he takes a different, and much darker, approach to comedy.

It's the kind of murder-riddled, deceit-filled homage to Christmas-gone-wrong that graciously avoids holiday cliché and replaces it with desperation disguised as cynicism, and uses the holiday more as a vehicle for debauchery than anything else. It's this kind of jaded noirism that allows Billy Bob Thornton to thrive as a strip club slime ball (in a very un-Christmas-like way, not unlike his character in 2003's "Bad Santa") and John Cusack -- despite playing a money-stealing mob lawyer -- to receive the bulk of our sympathies as the crooked yet lovable Charlie Arglist.

It's Christmas Eve in the seedy underbelly of Wichita, Kansas, and Charlie's been defeated -- he's a lawyer for despicable men, he's divorced, his son hates him and his flask seems never to leave his hand. So when he devises a way to heist a cool $2 million from his boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), he figures he doesn't have much to lose by going for it.

Besides, he's recruited strip club manager Vic Cavanaugh (Thornton) to be his accomplice. Together the doomed duo (Charlie bringing heart and brains, Vic sheer greed and guts) embark on what they once saw as "the perfect crime," but one that proves to be, as the night progresses, a complicated series of events tangled in unfortunate happenstance.

To no one's surprise, Guerrard gets savvy and is soon hot on their trail. And as if Charlie isn't having a hard enough time avoiding his boss, he's got two major distractions -- his best friend Pete (Oliver Platt), who is fumbling drunk and married to his ex-wife, and Renata (Connie Nielsen), his femme fatale object of desire, who suddenly seems to be reciprocating -- doing a fine job of twist the plot.

And perhaps the biggest roadblock standing between Charlie and his clean escape with a suitcase full of money to a place that Vic describes as "illegal for it to rain," is the ever-increasing ice storm, now a blatant metaphor for Charlie's slippery grip on life. Yet as thick as Mother Nature is laying it on, the proverbial ice is much thinner than it looks.

Cusack is brilliant as the austere Arglist in Ramis' bleak, dark-as-night comedy, which is based on Scott Phillip's novel. As director, Ramis takes a very stable hand to a central theme and message that could have easily slipped away if given too much leeway: Charlie's motto, if not his motive, "It's futile to regret."

"The Ice Harvest" opens everywhere Wednesday, Nov. 23.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”