What’s not as cool as being ice cold? The Cooler.
In his recent foray into leading-man-hood, William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a guy with the worst luck ever. He uses this karmic abnormality to turn a profit as a “cooler,” someone employed by old-school casinos to put gamblers’ winning streaks “on ice,” so to speak. Bernie moseys from table to table, causing people’s luck to turn by his very presence. He does so under the watchful eye of his benefactor Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), lifelong friend and owner of the Shangri La Casino. But Bernie has grown tired of his lot in life and, for reasons that remain unclear, wants to leave Las Vegas at the end of the week. This means bad business for Shelly, who will stop at nothing to keep Bernie under his thumb.
Macy has made a career of playing antiheroes. The role of “bad luck incarnate” is well within his dramatic range, and he treats it as such. From the used car salesman cum petty criminal in Fargo, to the cuckold porn producer in Boogie Nights and the aging ex-wiz kid in Magnolia, Macy brings life to the dregs of humanity. Whenever he takes to the screen, rock bottom is never very far away. In comparison to Macy’s past efforts, Bernie is woefully underwritten and unequipped with enough poignant dialogue to make his plight seem poetic. Macy strives with what he’s given, but for someone who spends his life in solitude, doling out misfortune to everyone he meets, an articulate life philosophy would have made him more interesting and more plausibly attractive to his eventual lover.
In order to maintain the cosmic balance of fortune (and to obey the even stricter laws of classical screenwriting), there must be a counterpart to Bernie’s loser persona. This comes in the form of Lady Luck, i.e. cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). The characters are magnetically drawn to one another and, after some of the most unerotic sex scenes ever filmed, fall in love. Their relationship suffers, however, when Bernie discovers that Shelly hired Natalie to keep him in town (a plot twist as predictable as the hands in “Celebrity Poker”). Together, they must reaffirm their love and extricate Bernie from the clutches of Shangri-La.
Though he lacks a sense of originality, filmmaker and co-writer Wayne Kramer succeeds in depicting a pathetically void and superficial Las Vegas, appropriate to the theme of hopelessness and loss that permeates the story. The movie uses few locations, heightening the sense of entrapment and claustrophobia felt by all of its characters. This also gives The Cooler a neo-Noir sensibility, with Natalie as the femme fatale to Bernie’s ill-fated and downtrodden protagonist. The cinematography and interior design add to the milieu of misfortune, mixing both drab and gaudy tones with a juxtaposition of Bernie’s empty motel room onto the bustling fanfare of the Shangri La Casino. There, a rich life is unattainable to so many who dream of it and thus, along with Bernie, they must pay to live inside the fantasy just as long as their luck holds out.
The Cooler’s happy ending offers a way out of the Las Vegas quicksand. The hero wins. The bad guy loses. True love prevails. Unfortunately the Macy/Bello relationship lacks enough chemistry to elicit relief, and the only flesh-and-blood character in the film, Shelly, befalls the very same old-school justice that he delivers throughout the story. This leaves the Hollywood universe in balance, but at the expense of the viewer’s interest. Better luck next time.