Gamble me to the grave
While some of the acting by Alec Baldwin and Maria Bello is first rate in director Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler, there is little else to praise in this silly and often preposterous film. Boasting a predictable script and featuring a realistic tone that is all wrong for such an outrageous storyline, the film winds up feeling more goofy than profound.
William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a former gambler who has essentially sold his soul to the devil in order to survive. After Bernie built up a large gambling debt, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin as the hypothetical Devil), the owner of the old-school casino Shangri-La, gave him a debilitating injury. As further punishment, Bernie was forced to become the casino’s “Cooler,” turning a gambler’s luck bad by simply standing next to him or touching the gambling station. His ability to do this comes off as some sort of weird, old-Vegas evil superpower.
Bernie has every intention of finishing out his verbal contract with Shelly, then hitting the road. His life receives an unexpected shot of excitement when Natalie (Maria Bello), a mysterious and beautiful cocktail waitress, steps into his life. Their love affair is cute, thanks mostly to Bello’s refusal to acknowledge that the material is sloppy and stereotypical.
In the lead role, William H. Macy has never been so bland and uninteresting, which is probably a requirement for the role of unluckiest guy in the world. Still, there must’ve been something the guy could’ve done to spice things up a bit. It’s a retread of his breakthrough role in Fargo, with all the fun and quirky traits removed. Macy limps around the casino looking somber, only cracking the occasional smile when he sees Bello naked. He garners little sympathy for Bernie’s plight.
While a subplot involving efforts to make the Shangri-La into a family attraction feels like it could’ve had an entire, and better, movie made from it, another involving Bernie’s long-lost son is terrible. Shawn Hatosy gives one of last year’s worst performances as Mikey the wayward son, scamming casino tables with his pregnant wife (Estella Warren, who gives Hatosy a run for his money in the bad acting department). These characters feel like nothing more than conventional script devices to get Bernie into one last jam for the film’s final act.
The movie feels like it should’ve been an outrageous, dark comedy and Vegas satire, rather than the ode to old-school gambling it tries to be. Bernie’s luck-killing superpower doesn’t feel at home or authentic in a film that otherwise sticks close to reality. A gloomy jazz-band soundtrack does nothing but accentuate the drabness of Macy’s performance, making the pace of the film interminable.
Baldwin received many year-end critical accolades. He, like Bello, rises above the shaky material. He’s so good I would’ve preferred a film where Bernie was just a silly side character, and the majority of time was spent on slimy Shelly. Ron Livingston is also good as a young punk trying to convince Shelly to renovate and expand his casino. Again, I was far more interested in him than anything to do with Bernie.
The Cooler, which used Reno locations like the Golden Phoenix as a substitute for Vegas, has some goodness in it. That goodness is apparent because the rest of the film around it is often terrible. Baldwin and Bello actually have shots at Oscar nominations, but don’t expect the same for Macy and the film. They are duds.