Alibi V.13 No.3 • Jan 15-21, 2004 

Film Review

The Cooler

Luck is a lady in this quirky new comedy/drama

The Cooler;

Directed by Wayne Kramer

Cast: William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin

“Ninety-nine-cent shrimp cocktail? Yes!”
“Ninety-nine-cent shrimp cocktail? Yes!”

Ever heard the old saying, “If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all?” Well, that well-worn credo describes Bernie Lootz to a T. Bernie's got such an excess of bad luck, in fact, that he's able to pawn it off on other people. Employed by a run-down Las Vegas casino as the resident “cooler,” Bernie's job is to hang out and rub elbows with gamblers on a winning streak in the superstitious belief that his contagious misfortune will rub off on the winners. And who better to play this sad sack specimen of humanity than indie stalwart William H. Macy.

Since his star-making turn as inept car salesman/kidnapper Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, Macy has all but patented the role of lovable loser (see also: Pleasantville, Boogie Nights, Magnolia). Macy is so good at depicting downtrodden chumps because he's able to infuse them with an almost chipper acceptance of their sorry lot in life. Bernie Lootz is a perfect case in point. The guy is such a loser that he's actually made a successful career of it, working for Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), a sleazy gangster type at what must be the last Mob-run casino in downtown Vegas.

Bernie's luck changes for the better one day, however, when he hooks up with a cute young waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello). Unfortunately, that's actually bad luck for Bernie. Seems that a little success in the sack is enough to turn his fortunes around, which means that now his good luck is rubbing off on casino patrons, causing his boss to pay out large sums of money—a task he is loathe to do. And when Mr. Kaplow gets mad, he has a tendency to break things ... like kneecaps—a service he has already performed on Mr. Lootz once.

Small in scope, but rich in talent, The Cooler is a snappy little indie mixing drama, comedy and romance. Fledgling writer/director Wayne Kramer makes a few rookie mistakes along the way. The script isn't as tight as it could be. The mix of lighthearted comedy and heavy-handed violence isn't always smooth. And the romantic “twist” is so old it creaks. Still, the cast members are so good in their seedy stereotypes that they sucker you into believing every far-fetched fairy tale moment.

Bello is terrific (who'da thunk it watching Coyote Ugly for the third time on late-night cable?). She mixes a certain lived-in, world-weary sexuality with a well-concealed street-smart canniness. Physically, the taut young blonde is a tough match with the pallid middle-aged Macy, but—if you can get past the May/December connection—the two work well together. I certainly expect to see more intriguing work from Bello after this.

Baldwin, meanwhile, is experiencing a mini Renaissance. His skeevy turn in Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat was that film's sole bright spot, and he continues it here, delivering an explosive, villainous turn. His mobster/manager is a frighteningly charismatic mixture of old school, Godfather-style principles and cruel, Scarface-like business practices. For every kind move he seems to make (befriending a past-his-prime lounge singer played by Paul Sorvino), he seems to have an equal, antipodal reaction (administering back alley justice to some casino con artists). Though we're never less than terrified of Shelly, we can almost admire his crackpot morals (turning down a group of Steve Wynn-style investors who want to Disney-up his casino, having the stones to personally administer all his own baseball bat beatings).

The rewards are not enormous here, but the risks are minimal—sort of like sticking a coin in the nickel slots and hitting a jackpot. Surprisingly sexy, wickedly entertaining and possessed of a fantastical belief in the power of providence, The Cooler comes up a winner in the final chip count.