Movie Review by Dan Spiers
Starring: William H Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Shawn Hatosy, Ron Livingston
Director: Wayne Kramer
It is not the neon brilliance of Las Vegas that dazzles in Wayne Kramer’s debut feature, THE COOLER, but the bizarre yet wonderfully realised romance between a contagious loser and desperate cocktail waitress.
Before Bernie Lootz (William H Macy) meets Natalie (Maria Bello), his life is an endless vale of sorrows. Bernie is a ‘Cooler’, a man so unlucky he’s employed to patrol the Shangri-La casino infecting gamblers with misfortune. If someone is raking it in then Bernie is despatched to suck up their luck and duly spew the poisoned remains over his own miserable life.
This is a hapless man that ‘cools’ out of necessity. He works merely to pay debts incurred as a gambler, but in a few days his debt to Shangri-La boss Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) will be paid and he’ll be free to leave.
Kaplow cannot let this happen and he certainly can’t permit love to thaw Bernie’s ‘cooling’ ability. What’s more the casino board have begun to question his anachronistic methods – as an old school boss he cracks bones whilst his burnt out cabaret staff crack lame gags- and put in place a management consultant to oversee the transformation of the Shangri-La into a themed palace of “Epcot Centre bullshit”.
The relationships between Bernie, Natalie and Kaplow are at the heart of the movie with all three actors delivering fantastic performances. William H Macy has a pantheon of losers to his credit but surely Bernie is his magnum opus. With a ginger fringe that flops forlornly over puppy-dog eyes, he is the very definition of despair as he limps across the casino. Macy has the astounding ability to carry the weight of the world on his brow, so when love leads to his fringe being swept aside and frown vanquished, it’s a celebratory moment.
The camera is as unflattering to Natalie Bellow as it is to Macy and she succeeds in conveying the same level of desperation in trying to discover something of worth within a soulless city. The love scenes between the two are striking: their brief, awkward coupling a passionate, raw affair between two people clearly exorcising personal demons.
Baldwin’s Kaplow casts a malign shadow over the relationship and indeed the whole movie. The resonance of his voice has been evident before but in THE COOLER it takes on the hypnotic quality of Kaa from JUNGLE BOOK. Credit to Kramer for realising Baldwin could deliver such a beautiful beast, at one moment a soothing presence emitting chocolatey vowel sounds and in the twinkle of a bright, blue eye, shattering a kneecap.
Wayne Kramer has constructed a touching, dramatic movie that is a marvellous exploration of luck and the extent to which it is pre- or self-determined. The only criticism is that the ending he has chosen is the easiest option, one that is satisfying, but disappointing and ever so slightly cheap. Things don’t come that easy in the life of Bernie Lootz, but maybe that’s the point.