Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Cooler

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE COOLER

7/10

USA 2003 : Wayne KRAMER : 101 mins

Bernie Lootz (William H Macy) is a nondescript mid-forties bloke, working at a proudly fifties-style Las Vegas casino named the Golden Shangri-La. Behind Bernie’s unremarkable exterior lies a very special talent: he’s a walking cloud of bad luck. Whenever a gambler is winning too much money on a particular table, Bernie is sent over to douse the hot streak – hence, he’s a “cooler.” And he’s the best in the business – until, that is, he starts an unlikely affair with sympathetic cocktail-waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). But this turn of good fortune has an unfortunate side-effect: he’s no longer able to ‘cool’ others. Which spells big trouble for under-pressure casino-boss Shelly (Alec Baldwin)…

Though sufficiently original and distinctively-flavoured to stand on its own, The Cooler can be fairly summed up as a cross between Paul Thomas Anderson’s little-seen Reno-set debut Hard Eight (for Macy and Bello read John C Reilly and Gwyneth Paltrow) and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Tenerife-based Intacto (with an inevitable hint of Casino and Leaving Las Vegas). As in arthouse hit Intacto, luck’s status as a real, almost tangible force is taken for granted – but the world of gambling has always been a famously superstitious one, and it’s just about (amusingly) plausible that casinos might once have employed ‘coolers’ like Bernie.

But while Fresnadillo groped for philosophical profundity and foundered on Holocaust parallels, The Cooler wisely contents itself with telling a simple, rather old-fashioned story relatively straight. Like P.T.Anderson, however, writer-director Kramer is occasionally guilty of being rather too fond of his fictional creations: though we’re kept guessing right to the very end about what’s going to happen to Bernie and Natalie (and Kramer doesn’t flinch from the mafia-inflected violence familiar from the Vegas-pic sub-genre such as Casino) there’s always the suspicion that The Cooler‘s hard shell of noirish fatalism will eventually yield a soft and only slightly gritty centre.

On several occasions, Kramer’s script (co-written with Frank Hannah) shows his inexperience, relying on contrivance to kick the plot along: Bernie’s nogoodnik early-twenties son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) shows up with his pregnant girlfriend Charlene (Estella Warren) at precisely the worst possible moment, setting off a melodramatic subplot that feels like a clunky way of placing Bernie and Natalie even more peril from the volatile Shelly. Mikey and Charlene, like Shelly’s own loathsome bosses (yuppie Ron Livingstone, mobster Arthur J Nascarella), are little more than cardboard caricatures of short-sighted venality – disappointing in a film which creates three such striking and memorable central characters in Bernie, Natalie and Shelly.

And the actors rise to the challenge with aplomb: Baldwin notched a deserved Oscar nomination as the unpredictably vicious Shelly, and he’s matched by the ever-excellent, oft-unrecognisable Bello (Jennifer Jason Leigh meets Eva Marie Saint?) while a never-more-hangdog Macy gets to revel in a rare lead-role. Kramer’s direction is appropriately ‘old-school’, deploying economic editing (Arthur Coburn) a snazzy-jazzy score (Mark Isham) and sharp widescreen cinematography (James Whitaker) to tell a small-scale, slow-burning, but ultimately persuasive night-town tale – one that takes the time to bid elegaic farewell to the old Vegas as crumbles into dust before our eyes.

11th June, 2004
(seen 5th June : Vue, Leicester : press show – Cinema Days event)

by Neil Young