Cooler, The (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Cooler, as icy a title as you're likely to find, is about the efforts of one man to find his luck (or, to be more precise, some form of luck other than that of the bad variety). Rarely has a more pathetic individual been captured and portrayed on the screen. Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is a loser's loser - the kind of guy who makes Wiley Coyote look fortunate. Bernie's luck is so bad that it confounds career losers. Worse, Bernie's luck is contagious. Put him next to someone who's on a roll, and he stops them cold. "People get next to me and their luck turns," he succinctly explains. That's the reason The Shangri-La Casino in Las Vegas wants to keep Bernie in their employ. He's their "cooler." Whenever anyone starts winning, all casino mogul Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) has to do is send in Bernie.

(Natural question to ask at this point: Do Coolers really exist? Probably not, but there's no way to find out for sure. Every one in Vegas and Atlantic City denies their existence, but they all know what Coolers are without an explanation. In a business that will try almost anything to gain even the smallest edge, it makes one wonder…)

One could argue that this is a chicken-and-egg syndrome, and director Wayne Kramer, making his feature debut, has some fun playing with the concept. Is Bernie's bad luck the result of his depression and lack of self-esteem, or is his self-image so low because his luck is atrocious? Either way, there's no denying that Bernie, as brilliantly portrayed by William H. Macy (without any of his trademark over-the-top tics), is about as sad a human being as you're ever likely to encounter. Shelly desribes him as "walking Kryptonite." Someone else remarks, "I have never met someone so down on himself." Suddenly, however, that's all about to change.

Love comes unexpectedly into Bernie's life in the person of cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). Suddenly, after having sex with Natalie, Bernie begins to feel as if his luck is changing, and, the next day at work, his "cooling" powers fail him. This comes at a particularly inappropriate time for Shelly, whose "old school" methods of running the casino are being called into question by a mob boss (Arthur J. Nascarella) who wants to modernize the operation. And, to further complicate matters, Bernie's no-good son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy), and his pregnant girlfriend (Estella Warren) arrive in Vegas looking to Bernie for a financial bail-out. (Really, it's just money to use for gambling and drug purchases.)

The best part of the film, unsurprisingly, is William H. Macy's low-key portrayal of Bernie, who radiates "complete loser" from frame one. But, when things start to change, Macy doesn't just resort to grand gestures to show Bernie's reactions. The second best thing is the relationship between Bernie and Natalie, which is tender and erotic. We believe in these two characters, and we accept that they fill each other's needs. This doesn't seem like another manufactured screen romance. It feels true, and, for the third act of The Cooler to work, that's a necessity. The other plot elements, which include Shelly playing carrot-and-stick with Bernie to get him to stick around, the mob putting pressure on Shelly, and Bernie's family problems, add texture and scope to the overall storyline. And the film ends on a note of delicious irony that even the most blasé viewer will appreciate.

Kramer has fashioned an impressive cinematic calling card. In addition to its character, acting, and plot strengths, The Cooler is highly atmospheric, capturing the false glitz of Vegas (remarked upon by Alec Baldwin in a monologue that compares the city to a prostitute) with the cameras, and using an evocative score (combining the work of Mark Isham with various standards). The film offers a surprisingly frank perspective of the sexual aspects of the characters' relationship, with a couple of cuts necessary to earn the MPAA's "R" rating. There's also a hilarious scene that might make viewers question exactly what they're hearing through paper-thin motel room walls. The Cooler is, without a doubt, a hot prospect.

Cooler, The (United States, 2003)

Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2003-11-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Drug Use)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1