Directed by: Wayne Kramer
Starring: William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Shawn Hatosy, Paul Sorvino
This is one curious little movie -- and one that requires the viewer to accept its quirks at face value in order for it to work. And, all in all, I think it's probably worth the effort.
If you can accept the very existence of a "cooler" -- a fellow with such incredibly bad luck that he's employed by a casino to stand next to winners so his ill-fortune rubs off on them -- then there's little reason not to go the rest of the way with the screenplay's other flights of fancy, especially when they're so well presented, and are played out by such a top-run cast.
Reliable William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, the cooler of the title. Bernie goes way back with casino owner Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin). In fact, Shelly once rescued him when Bernie was in Dutch with casinos to the tune of $150,000 -- that is, he came to Bernie's aid after shattering one of his kneecaps with a baseball bat. The price of this rescue has been years and years of working as the unpaid cooler at Shelly's Golden Shangri-La casino in Vegas.
When we meet Bernie, we find that his bad luck isn't limited to gambling. He's also lost his wife, his son and his cat, and whenever he gets a cup of coffee at the casino, the bartender has invariably just run out of cream. The running gag concerning the cream is always followed by his apologetic, "It doesn't matter." And it doesn't -- this is all he expects.
Actually, one thing does matter: In a few days, his indentured servitude to Shelly comes to an end. It's at this point that Bernie's luck at least appears to change, because a cocktail waitress at the Golden Shangri-La, Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello, Auto-Focus), comes into his life -- and his bed. Things are still far from perfect. Bernie's worthless son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy, A Guy Thing) and his pregnant wife (Estella Warren, Planet of the Apes) show up, and after bilking Bernie out of his savings, end up getting caught by Shelly using loaded dice to win $150,000 at the casino -- creating for Bernie a situation that, at best, could be called awkward.
If it seems I've given away too much of the plot, trust me, there's more (a lot more), not to mention a subplot involving the mob muscling in on Shelly because they want to transform his old-style, no-frills casino into a modern facility modeled on the Shangri-La in Frank Capra's Lost Horizon -- and boasting a roller coaster! And all of this is part of the reason that it's worth your efforts to go with the movie's increasingly improbable coincidences. Yep, it's hard not to encounter them -- especially the last one -- and not smack your head while crying out, "Jumping deus ex machina!" But the very creativity with which this plot-heavy movie is filled out is a kind of joy in itself.
It's hard not to sense that writer/director Wayne Kramer and co-writer Frank Hannah are having a great time as they construct this ever-increasingly complex series of events -- and there's something infectious about their fun, not in the least because it's constantly surprising you with the next turn. Yet this overly clever plotting narrowly avoids the self-back-patting that afflicts not wholly dissimilar David Mamet outings.
All in all, though, Kramer, is a better writer than he is a filmmaker. If his screenplay is convoluted, it almost pales in the face of his often-heavy-handed symbolism. Shots are too often linked together cleverly, but to no real point other than that the transition is "neat." A salt shaker spills, for instance, and the moment is so full of meaning that it sounds for all the world like someone just felled a redwood in the Pacific Northwest. And late in the film, Bernie pulls into a parking space with a partially burnt-out neon sign reading "EZ MARK" reflected in his windshield. Then when the shot has been held long enough for us to get it, the "ET" in "Market" flashes on.
Still, the film remains constantly entertaining thanks to the script and the performances. William H. Macy, wonderful as Bernie, is matched every step of the way by Maria Bello; however, the real scene stealer is Alec Baldwin, who's never been this good. He manages to transform Shelly into one of the screen's more complex and fascinating monsters -- who, blessedly, does not turn out to have anything like a standard movie change of heart. Baldwin is utterly fascinating whenever he comes onscreen, casually stealing his scenes right out from under the stars.
His performance alone would make The Cooler worth seeing, but it's only one of several reasons to give the movie a chance. Just don't go to it expecting anything remotely approaching realism or traditional believability.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke