The Cooler

December, 2003, Comedy

Directed by:Wayne Kramer

Starring:William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Shawn Hatosy, and Ron Livingston

As a character actor, William H. Macy has been stealing movies from his fellow thespians for so long he should receive a Lifetime Theft Award at the Oscars. His work in films ranging from Seabiscuit to Fargo has finally earned him the right to play a romantic leading role--and in a perfect example of inexplicable serendipity, Alec Baldwin upstages Macy by absconding with the acting honors.

Cooler is the kind of fantasy/comedy Damon Runyon would have enjoyed concocting if he'd been a screenwriter rather than an author of comedic short stories about the underworld. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a nebbish who works in an old-fashioned Las Vegas casino owned and operated by mob-connected Shelly Kaplow, (Baldwin). Bernie's role is to "cool' the luck of those casino guests who get on a roll, reversing their luck so the casino's already exorbitant profit margins can be safely maintained. No attempt is made to justify the efficacy of Bernie's role; Shelly's just convinced that coolers work, and that Bernie's the best at this unusual craft.

Bernie, (who walks with a limp that's shockingly explained during the course of the movie) is the film version of the old Al Capp cartoon character who lived under a permanent rain-cloud; unlucky at cards and love, Bernie work's his magic for Shelly in order to pay off a gambling debt, and he's so successful at it that Shelly wants Bernie to become a permanent fixture of the establishment. To that end, Shelly enlists Natalie, a rather round-heeled cocktail waitress, to become Bernie's live-in companion. This is all just a business proposition for Natalie of course, but this being a Runyon-esque script, she actually falls in love with Bernie, changing his luck and thus ruining his unique ability to sour everyone else's. Shelly now demands that Natalie to go away, Natalie doesn't want to leave, Bernie discovers that he's been scamed, etc.

This conventional look at the world of professional gambling would have little to recommend it were it not for a subplot involving the gangsters who own a piece of Shelly's casino. They're bent on modernizing what Shelly believes to be a classic bit of old Vegas, but their insistence puts Shelly in the middle of a double squeeze--while he's leaning on Bernie, the gangsters are leaning on Shelly--what's a guy to do?

There's a rich vein of earthy, vulgar humor here, juxtaposed with some stomach-wrenching violence; these characters may be funny, but they're very dangerous too, and part of the film's impact comes from co-writer & director Wayne Kramer's ability to keep sucker-punching his audience, swinging from low comedy through romance to disconcerting mayhem and back again. 

Macy may be in danger of being type-cast; there's nothing fresh in his Bernie, the schlemiel whose sincerity here ultimately triumphs over adversity; the joy of watching Macy mangle the commission of a felony in Fargo disappears when he's simply being put 

upon by those around him. Baldwin, on the other hand, brings the deeply cynical and thuggish Shelly to life; an odd mixture of dogged loyalty to friends and simplistic devotion to his life's work permits the actor to insinuate himself into the audiences' sympathies even as he destroys those closest to him. Not since his turn as a high-pressure real estate salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross has this often under-rated actor been given a role that allowed him to demonstrate the intensity he's capable of. If enough members of the Academy see this little film, Baldwin may just garner an Oscar nomination for his superb work.

True to its loopy nature, the climax of Cooler perfectly matches the cheeky, amoral worldview it embraces: the good guys sort-of win, the good-bad guys lose quite painfully, and the really bad-bad guys roll on without breaking a sweat. Director Kramer has a wonderfully jaundiced view of these lowlifes, and he's terrific at sharing it with his audience. 

The Verdict? Not for every taste, but quite fascinating all the same.


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