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Dustin Putman

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The Cooler (2003)
2 Stars

Directed by Wayne Kramer
Cast: William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin, Shawn Hatosy, Estella Warren, Ron Livingston, Paul Sorvino, Arthur J. Nascarella, Joey Fatone, Ellen Greene, M.C. Gainey, Don Scribner, Tony Longo
2003 – 101 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, sex, nudity, language, and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 23, 2003.

"The Cooler" wants to be a lot of things. A character study. A crime drama. A love story. A portrait of the dirty dealings within a casino. A study on the mysticism of fate and chance. The film features sterling performances from William H. Macy (2001's "Focus"), Maria Bello (2000's "Duets"), and Alec Baldwin (2003's "The Cat in the Hat"), but not much else to grab hold of as the machinations of the many different plot threads swing out of control in the final act. Directed by Wayne Kramer with an astute eye for character moments but a nagging implausibility in its narrative, "The Cooler" finally becomes too cute for its own good, relying so heavily on symbolism to get its points across that it becomes more ridiculous than lyrical.

Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is a tired, middle-aged man so unlucky in life that he has been employed for many years by Las Vegas' Shangri-La casino as a cooler—a spreader of bad luck for high stakes rollers. The casino has seen better days, both financially and creatively, something casino director Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) cannot accept when Bernie's luck takes a complete turnaround after falling in love with cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). As Shelly bullies the new couple into giving up their relationship, dire circumstances involving Bernie's estranged son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy), leave Bernie owing $150,000 to Shelly—or else.

As a character study of a weary man who has had it with the scuzzy lifestyle of living in Vegas and yearns to get out, only for mounting road blocks to keep getting in his way, "The Cooler" is low-key and perceptive. As Bernie, William H. Macy is faultless in the sort of quietly imploding role one has grown accustomed to him delivering. Maria Bello is truly touching as the down-to-earth Natalie, who is surprised to find herself falling for Bernie, in spite of a nagging secret she has chosen to keep from him. And Alec Baldwin has never, or rarely, been so consummate and genuinely threatening onscreen. As the savage, heartless Shelly, who is prepared to go to any lengths necessary to keep his casino running, Baldwin brilliantly creates a modern-day human villain as scary as any to come along in some time.

Unfortunately, the increasingly plot-driven developments start to outweigh the effectiveness of the human story. If the actors never falter, their characters unavoidably become pawns to Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer's screenplay, rather than natural living beings. Not helping is the smothering symbolism placed throughout the picture. When Bernie gets a coffee at the casino bar and the bartender is out of cream, it means Bernie is out on his luck. When things are going better for him, the bartender has cream. This obvious, amateurish symbolism is repeated over and over, ad nauseum, and when a particular twist of good fate occurs at the end when Bernie is at his lowest point, it becomes too much to bear. It has long since stopped being clever, and made a wrong turn toward absurdity.

In making "The Cooler," director Wayne Kramer has cooked up three original, arresting characters, and placed them smack dab in the gritty heart of sin city. That would have been enough for an effectively understated drama, but it isn't enough for Kramer, who pulls his characters and the plot in so many different directions that you finally throw your hands up in frustration and stop caring. "The Cooler" is a superb acting showcase simply mired in too many complications for its own good.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman