Movie Review
The Cooler


2003

Director: Wayne Kramer
Cast: William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin
C


ou have William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin for acting chops, Estella Warren for eye candy, the most exciting city in the world for setting and high stakes gambling for a large portion of the plot. With these ingredients one could make an entertaining, quality flick. So how, Wayne Kramer (not of MC5 fame), do you create a movie both boring and poorly executed?

The Cooler is the story of Bernie Lootz (Macy), a middle aged loser with a limp and one of the worst haircuts in cinematic history. Lootz lives in a stylized Las Vegas, a mystical place where luck and attitude determine card flips and dice throws more than the forces of probability. The manager of the Shangri-La casino, a one Mr. Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin), employs Bernie in the titular occupation. A cooler is one whose luck is so terrible that his mere presence at a gaming table causes an otherwise lucky player to go bust. Lootz, whose theme song should be “Born Under a Bad Sign”, is the least lucky man in Vegas, and thus the best cooler.

Unfortunately, Bernie’s not-chosen profession takes a toll on him mentally, and despite Shelly’s best efforts, Lootz is insistent on leaving town for a new life. Before his Vegas jailbreak however, Bernie is blindsided by Natalie (Maria Bello), a knockout cocktail waitress with the obligatory tragic and shady past. After Bernie lends her a hand at work, Natalie is inexplicably attracted to the loser and pursues him aggressively. Her vigor and the speed at which things develop activate Bernie’s defenses. Lootz has no delusions about his charm, and when Natalie asks him to take her home he replies that he cannot pay the price for her company. Natalie convinces him that she’s not a prostitute, so they swing by his dumpy motel room for an awkward consummation to an awkward courtship. Natalie’s comment about this session? “Don’t worry Bernie, I’ve had worse.” That’s right folks: white-hot sexual action.

In spite of the initial hurdles to their relationship, Natalie and Lootz grow to genuinely love each other, and the scenes displaying their deepening bond are really the strength of the film. One can always root for the star-crossed loser who finally finds happiness in the arms of an understanding woman. A black cloud hangs over the proceedings however, for Bernie’s luck is reversed once he and Natalie profess their love for one another. The newly fortunate Lootz is no longer an effective cooler, which raises the ire of Shelly and opens the door to Natalie’s aforementioned shady past.

People reveal themselves to be different from what Bernie had believed, and seemingly disappoint him at every turn. One of whom is Natalie, who was a hooker (that little fibber), but claims to truly have fallen for Lootz. Good story honey, real believable. You know if every hooker fell for her loser john because he was a decent guy I’d be married five times over right now… ha ha! That was of course a joke. I’d only be married three times.

The story drags for another half hour or so before the rather horrific (in quality) ending. Characters behave in completely inconsistent manners, extremely unnecessary scenes are thrown together, and the love story that basically makes the movie at all worth while is ignored for “big, important events”.

The Cooler is not all bad, though. The performances generally are solid, with special distinction to Baldwin’s Shelly, whose love for the old ways of Vegas in the face of glitzy corporate encroachment fuels an unnerving rage. Also deserving of mention is Warren, who although only given a small role, surprisingly proved she can act. The only misstep is Ron Livingston, usually a good actor, who plays a corporate dog nipping at Shelly’s heels. His character is terribly written, and the performance is sub-par from Mr. Office Space.

Regrettably, the many good performances are wasted by unfocused script-writing and direction. Subplots intended to develop characters are often wasted by those same characters changing their stripes without reason in later moments of the film. Other subplots meander lifelessly, searching for some shred of purpose. One such subplot is intended to show the death of Shelly’s beloved Vegas and the transition to the circus that is the Strip today. Such a point is interesting, but has no bearing on the story whatsoever. Also, Joey Fatone is heavily involved, and everyone knows he was like the fourth or fifth coolest N’Sync member so of course that part of the story suffers from the lack of Justin or JC.

The Cooler is a touching but thin love story expanded to a length that its writers cannot justify. Despite strong acting throughout, too many scenes could have been left on the cutting room floor. In the end, it may be worth a trip to Blockbuster on a Wednesday night, but is definitely not worth an $8.50 ticket.


By: Kevin Worrall
2004-01-16


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