The Cooler
review by Elias Savada, 26 December 2003

Let me get this off my chest.

There's something off-putting about William H. Macy's backside. Its plain vanilla, flat landscape regrettably caught me off guard when it sputtered before the camera in The Cooler, especially when his bony posterior is contrasted with the shapely contour belonging to his co-star Maria Bello. Yeah, the classic character actor Macy (Fargo, Panic [rent it -- I know most of you have never heard of it!], and his Emmy Award-winning Door to Door, which he also co-wrote), finally gets to bare his all, literally, in a role that allows him two tenderly torrid love scenes, with comic underpinnings (not to mistake him as a romantic lead, of course), when he's not impersonating the grim reaper of bad luck. For all the confused imagery viewers may suffer at the short (but not brief enough) glimpse of his buttocks, Macy's ugly duckling performance, as usual, makes up for it in spades. That makes sense -- his new film's set in that western gambling mecca Las Vegas. [Note to Bill: please consider your audience the next time you take your consider taking your pants off -- on screen.]

Now with that out of the way, let's ask, have you ever had a string of good luck turn bad? Well that's the driving, twisted notion going on here, of bad fortune, and good, personified in the shell of a schlub. It's an intriguing story from first time feature director Wayne Kramer (who co-wrote with Frank Hannah) who takes a sad sack mensch named Bernie Lootz (no relation to the Massachusetts Lootz's) and magically endows him with bad karma. We're not talking just a simple case of sour superstition, but of an infectiously dark string of bad providence, i.e., a role perfect for Macy's long lists of loser characters. On his new part, he said "this takes the character of the loser to operatic heights! But I liked the idea that Bernie's fortunes are transformed through love, and I will always be drawn to, and am a sucker for, love stories."

In Las Vegas, that ever gaudy beacon of excess and entertainment, the powers that be at the Golden Shangri-La hotel/casino have a secret cure for anyone who wins a little too much at the tables. He's got a game leg and shuffles about the floor, brushing up against a roulette wheel here, a blackjack table there, and the stool of a slot machine patron down the aisle, dousing any luck as if the local fire department had dumped a truckful of sand onto a recent triumphant spin, winning hand, or jackpot. The change of luck spreads quicker than this year's flu outbreak. And the folks at the Center for Disease Control down in Atlanta don't even have this on their radar. There's also a long-standing case of resolute drudgery that only lady luck can cure.

This local epidemic is better known to the casino staff, those who notice him,  as "The Cooler," as Bernie's offbeat occupation is aptly named: bringing people's good fortune tumbling down. It's tantalizing to watch the camera follow him as he knocks down a single room, guaranteeing a sour taste that you can't quite place. "Better luck next time," he dourly passes to a straggler who just gave up on his rotten fate at blackjack 

Self-depreciation has gotten the better of him, or the worse. He's been an indentured servant to harsh master Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), who has been running the successful operation (duh) with an iron fist (and pipe) for 16 long years. When Nicky "Fingers" Bonnatto (Arthur J. Nascarella, a.k.a. Carlo Gervasi on The Sopranos), someone with seemingly "family" connections to the bigger organization that owns the Shangri La, Shelly's days as king of the aging casino appear numbered. Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), a bright, young vice president and Nicky's protégé is given a position sprucing up the establishment. Out goes Buddy the aging lounge singer (Paul Sorvino) in favor of Johnny Capella (NSYNC's Joey Fatone), an up-and-coming Harry Connick wannabe. Let's change the wallpaper, pipe in some subliminal messages, and get on Shelly's nerves.

Basically, though, it is a love story, and one that, unfortunately for Bernie, wears it on his sleeve. Casino waitress Natalie Belisario (Bello) takes on Bernie as a pet assignment and then decides to nurse him out of his torpid state of morose humility. For Bernie, love blossoms and casino patrons find that every hand is 21, every roulette spin a winner, and every one-armed bandit offering up rows of sevens. Even though Bernie is on the verge of "retirement," Shelly doesn't appreciate what a bad job his cooler is doing. A subplot featuring Bernie's estranged jerk-of-a-son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) and his pregnant girlfriend Charlene (Estella Warren) tossed a wrench in his departure from Vegas 

Although the direction is extremely polished for a debut feature (with superb photography by James Whitaker, a terrific jazzy/bluesy score by Mark Isham, and slick production design by Toby Corbett, capturing the lower echelon feel of the has-been Shangri-La casino), I felt he pushed some of the luck-filled gimmicks just a tad too much. There's a running gag with a barmaid played by Ellen Greene about coffee and cream that is definitely over-saturated. There are also some neat glossy touches. including a neat trick changing a flipping poker chip into a speedy Alka Seltzer tablet. Plunk, plunk, fizz, fizz. And that is Frank Capra's classic Lost Horizon showing on a hotel room television. There's also the script's wry sense of dark humor: the Better Life Motel is where Bernie resides. Yes, there's a vacancy, but a not a drop of water in the pool. And forget the quarter for a vibrating bed, because the hooker and her john are banging the adjoining wall so hard.

Overall, it's a heck of a small little film. Bello and Baldwin both provide extremely well defined characters, with the latter a contender for several year-end supporting actor awards. It's always fun watching Macy make an unlikely winner of a sympathetic loser.

Directed by:
Wayne Kramer

William H. Macy
Maria Bello
Alec Baldwin
Shawn Hatosy
Ron Livingston
Estella Warren
Arthur J. Nascarella
MC Gainey
Ellen Greene
Paul Sorvino

Written by:
Frank Hannah
Wayne Kramer

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.






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