Review by Dustin Putman
2 stars out of 4
"The Cooler" wants to be a lot of things. A character study. A crime
drama. A love story. A portrait of the dirty dealings within a casino.
A study on the mysticism of fate and chance. The film features sterling
performances from William H. Macy (2001's "Focus"), Maria Bello (2000's
"Duets"), and Alec Baldwin (2003's "The Cat in the Hat"), but not
much else to grab hold of as the machinations of the many different
plot threads swing out of control in the final act. Directed by Wayne
Kramer with an astute eye for character moments but a nagging implausibility
in its narrative, "The Cooler" finally becomes too cute for its own
good, relying so heavily on symbolism to get its points across that
it becomes more ridiculous than lyrical.
Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is a tired, middle-aged man so unlucky
in life that he has been employed for many years by Las Vegas' Shangri-La
casino as a coolera spreader of bad luck for high stakes rollers.
The casino has seen better days, both financially and creatively,
something casino director Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) cannot accept
when Bernie's luck takes a complete turnaround after falling in love
with cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). As Shelly bullies the
new co uple into giving up their relationship, dire circumstances
involving Bernie's estranged son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy), leave Bernie
owing $150,000 to Shellyor else.
As a character study of a weary man who has had it with the scuzzy
lifestyle of living in Vegas and yearns to get out, only for mounting
road blocks to keep getting in his way, "The Cooler" is low-key and
perceptive. As Bernie, William H. Macy is faultless in the sort of
quietly imploding role one has grown accustomed to him delivering.
Maria Bello is truly touching as the down-to-earth Natalie, who is
surprised to find herself falling for Bernie, in spite of a nagging
secret she has chosen to keep from him. And Alec Baldwin has never,
or rarely, been so consummate and genuinely threatening onscreen.
As the savage, heartless Shelly, who is prepared to go to any lengths
necessary to keep his casino running, Baldwin brilliantly creates
a modern-day human villain as scary as any to come along in some time.
Unfortunately, the increasingly plot-driven developments start to
outweigh the effectiveness of the human story. If the actors never
falter, their characters unavoidably become pawns to Frank Hannah
and Wayne Kramer's screenplay, rather than natural living beings.
Not helping is the smothering symbolism placed throughout the picture.
When Bernie gets a coffee at the casino bar and the bartender is out
of cream, it means Bernie is out on his luck. When things are going
better for him, the bartender has cream. This obvious, amateurish
symbolism is repeated over and over, ad nauseum, and when a particular
twist of good fate occurs at the end when Bernie is at his lowest
point, it becomes too much to bear. It has long since stopped being
clever, and made a wrong turn toward absurdity.
In making "The Cooler," director Wayne Kramer has cooked up three
original, arresting characters, and placed them smack dab in the gritty
heart of sin city. That would have been enough for an effectively
understated drama, but it isn't enough for Kramer, who pulls his characters
and the plot in so many different directions that you finally throw
your hands up in frustration and stop caring. "The Cooler" is a superb
acting showcase simply mired in too many complications for its own good.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman