Monday 2 March 2009

The Cooler (2003)

Director: Wayne Kramer
Star: William H Macy

I was a William H Macy fan long before I ever saw Fargo or Mystery Men: they just cemented my opinion of how great an actor he is. Then I saw Edmond and was stunned. He isn't just a great actor, he's one of the best we have today. Now every time I see one of his films I record it and find another side to his versatility. He doesn't look like a star in the slightest but he seems to be able to carry the lead, whatever it might happen to be. I wonder a lot whether these films were specifically written for him or not. He has a habit of making us think that.

Here he's Bernie Lootz, the cooler of the title. He works at the Golden Shangri La, a Las Vegas casino run by Shelly Kaplow, turning winners into losers, and he's very good at what he does. He does that simply by being himself, a jinx who brings bad luck to himself and everyone around him. In fact, the reason he works there is because he's into Kaplow for $100,000 of gambling debts and he's now five days away from his five year stint of jinxing the customers. That's what's left of his debt recovery plan after Kaplow takes a baseball bat to his right leg. Unfortunately he falls in love and his powers as a jinx vanish.

Macy is excellent as Bernie, because he can play the various levels of this part. He begins as a man who knows that he brings everything down and is fully resigned to living in that world. He doesn't know what good luck is because it disappears the moment he appears. Yet the good luck finally finds its way to him in the form of Natalie Belisario, a waitress at the Shangri La and it rocks his safe little world of loss. He begins to believe that there's something in his future except being a cooler, he begins to believe that he can win at something. There's a light that literally grows in his eyes as he finds that belief.

Yet there's another level. Bernie, on the way up from way down, runs into his son in a diner. His son is a conman and an ass, together with a pregnant girlfriend who isn't pregnant, and through his inadvised con tricks proceeds to knock Bernie back down again. Worse still, Kaplow isn't going to let his prize cooler get switched around just because he's fallen in love. He's old school in every way. After all, he believes in luck which is why he hires coolers. At heart this film is all about luck and Bernie is its personification. Lady Luck and whatever her opposite is called are characters in this film, whether we see them or not. So Bernie is forever down yet going up but going down while he's going up: he's like a whole batch of sine waves running in tandem.

It's another amazing Macy performance, but he's not the only one here to watch. I'm no huge Adam Alec Baldwin fan but he's spot on as the tough and sleazy Shelly Kaplow, who does what he does because it's how his philosophy tells him it has to be done, even though he doesn't always feel great doing it. He has plenty of scruples but he ignores them absolutely. I didn't know Maria Bello at all before this film, as she's best known for a recurring role on TV's ER, but she pulls off a difficult role as the woman who turns Bernie around. She's luminous here and would be an illumination in anyone's life. She could be a huge star and I'd be surprised to find that the coming years don't make that happen.


Anonymous said...

It was Alec Baldwin, not Adam.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Absolutely. I've corrected. Thank you.

I think I'm less happy with this review than any other I've written. It feels very kludgy but I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe this is part of it.

I didn't say much about Alec Baldwin. He's the one who got the Oscar nomination and I was surprised to discover that. I expected Macy to be great and he was, but my discovery here was Maria Bello who was luminous. Baldwin was just the other guy.

Yet Baldwin was excellent and he kept impressing me with his subtleties. And that doesn't add up right in my head. Like I said, I'm not happy with how I wrote this one.