The Cooler (2003) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexuality, nudity, violence, language, and drug use
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Ron Livingston, Arthur J. Nascarella, Shawn Hatosy, Estella Warren, Paul Sorvino, Joey Fatone
Director: Wayne Kramer
Screenplay: Frank Hannah, Wayne Kramer
Review published March 5, 2004
The "Cooler" of the title refers to a person that has such bad luck, that it becomes contagious to those around him, "cooling" their hot streak. Kramer's film imagines a Las Vegas where casinos find, employ, and exploit these people by having them walk around the casino wherever there's a "hot-spot" of winning, and their mere presence is enough to stop anyone who's on a roll.
William H. Macy (Fargo, Magnolia) plays Bernie Lootz, perhaps the unluckiest of these Coolers, who works for the Shangri-La casino, one of the "old school" casinos in Vegas. Alec Baldwin is Shelly, the casino's owner, who has been fighting to keep the traditions of his casino intact, rather than convert itself into the theme-park attraction that the newer breed of hotels on the strip have turned into. Shelly has made a sizable profit over the years, but the thought is that he could make more by a complete overhaul in the design and marketability of the joint. That Bernie now decides he'd like to leave proves to be unfortunate timing, and Shelly's not about to let go of his best weapon against hot streaks, especially when wrangling with the corporate hot-shots. However, Bernie and a cocktail waitress in the casino begin to form an unlikely romance, one which causes Bernie's luck to turn, and Shelly isn't about the let love get in the way of a good thing.
Although The Cooler has garnered some modest critical acclaim, I'm not inclined to agree that the end result produced a successful venture. There are definitely some impressive strong points, particularly in the quality cast of character actors that grace this low budget indie. William H. Macy does what he does best, play a likeable loser, a definite strength in having to like a guy who could be seen as too pathetic or whiny if played by a lesser talent. To those people who've had a jones to see him do nude scenes or engaging in simulated sex, here's your chance...all three of you should be ecstatic.
Maria Bello (Payback, "E.R.") provides the mismatched partner, and although the union is supposed to be somewhat difficult to swallow, there is a definite lack of chemistry between Bello and Macy that makes you still skeptical that these two people have any reason to be interested in each other, even when their love is intended to be real. I'm also not certain why the sex scenes were so prominent in this love story, or if there was indeed a reason, why they had to be as long or detailed as they were.
In addition, The Cooler is also on the brutal side when it comes to its displays of violence, with a few extended scenes of torture and extortion that seemed reminiscent of Scorsese's Casino. As engaging as these scenes are supposed to be, there is a curious lack of plausibility behind them, seeming too out of context with the story or situation they are in, and far too unnecessary.
The Cooler ends up being an initially intriguing, but ultimately artificial form of storytelling, too obvious in its twists and turns to be surprising, and too hollow in its ideas to leave a lasting impression. Even the symbolic representations of luck (black cat, spilled salt) needed to be done with a much more subtle touch, but I suppose in a film that plays its sex and violence so devoid of discretion, asking for plot points to be less obvious seems disingenuous. The film wants to be a magical fairy tale, but like the bluffing poker player who bets it all while holding a pair of deuces, The Cooler talks a big game without much to show.
©2004 Vince Leo