In a season of bulging Movies Earmarked for Importance, it is almost startling to come across something as unhyped and perfectly swell as The Ice Harvest. This acerbic, unpretentious black-comedy thriller, directed by Harold Ramis with mature glee, and written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton with grown-up literacy, takes place on what is possibly the lousiest Christmas Eve in the modern history of Wichita, Kan. It's a night on which a couple of bumbling embezzlers who think they've struck it rich find the ground cracking beneath them: Having siphoned off over $2 million from the coffers of a Kansas City crime boss, Charlie (John Cusack), a sleazeball lawyer, and Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), for whom being a sleazeball is profession enough, promptly begin to screw up. And as they do so, with greater and more pathetically dipstick complications, the movie takes on the swingin' inevitability of comic disaster.
A tricky dame (Connie Nielsen) exudes musk and danger. A drunken friend (Oliver Platt) causes trouble. The crime boss himself (Randy Quaid) gets wind of the dirty dealing and is out for revenge. The roads become increasingly icy (Midwestern locations supply Midwestern authenticity for the Chicago-bred director), and the Zen-ish graffiti that reappears in bathrooms and phone booths begins to suggest something simultaneously deep and meaningless: ''As Wichita falls, so falls Wichita Falls.''
The Ice Harvest is surely the most bracing, opposite-of-gooey holiday picture to appear since Bad Santa which, come to think of it, also made inspired use of Thornton's unmatchable talent for playing a vinegary puss. But even out of season, the movie is an exemplary specimen of collaborative professionalism. In this sophisticated yet seemingly straightforward contraption, Cusack's twitchiness plays off Thornton's oiliness (the two squared off previously, don't forget, in Pushing Tin) while Platt's theatricality finds its female counterweight in Nielsen's cartoonish sensuality. The dialogue is a festival of good talk without drawing attention to itself as ''snappy.''
There's nothing especially groundbreaking about the work, and that, too, plays as a strength: Here's a movie neither too big nor too small just good. We need more of this size, this shape. Because, as The Ice Harvest rises, so rises the stock of the midsize American movie.