Judge Patrick Bromley gives William H. Macy's up-on-his-Luck gambler flick a Vegas-sized thumbs up.
Everything was going so well…and then he got lucky.
A great number of films have been made about Las Vegas, not the least of which being Martin Scorsese's Casino. Wayne Kramer's The Cooler is a different kind of Vegas film altogether—a film noir love story not as interested in decrying the city or its accompanying vice as it is in celebrating the Vegas of a time gone by. It proudly wears its heart on the sleeve of a badly bruised, possibly broken arm, and gives the great, great William H. Macy what is potentially his best role yet.
Facts of the Case
Poor Bernie Lootz. He's the unluckiest man in all of Vegas, and he's stuck using his misfortune to repay a debt to Shelly (Alec Baldwin, Beetlejuice, Glengarry Glen Ross), boss of the old-school Golden Shangri-La Casino. Bernie is a Cooler, hired by the casino to spread his own bad luck around and "cool" any of the players who might be on a winning streak. Everything is going fine for Bernie—that is, until he meets Natalie (Maria Bello, Permanent Midnight, Payback), a waitress at the Shangri-La who takes a liking to him. As Bernie falls in love with Natalie, his luck begins to turn around—which, as far as Shelly is concerned, may ultimately prove to be hazardous to his health.
To see The Cooler is to understand what is wrong with ninety percent of American films. Here is a film that is at once darkly cynical and unabashedly romantic. It's a film with a fantastic visual style—almost flashy—but with a subtle and intimate sense of character at its core. It has a story to tell—not just a situation, an actual story. It embraces all of its elements—it doesn't shy away from its darkness, its violence, its romance, or its sexuality. At a time when most films are skittish of any one of these things (except for romance, although most films force their characters into a relationship as opposed to letting their characters fall in love, as they do here), The Cooler is a breath of cinematic fresh air.
The film is brave at a time when a large number of films distance themselves with ironic detachment. It takes an intangible concept like Luck and treats it deadly seriously—it exists, it can be good or bad (and affect those around you), and can change at any moment for any number of reasons. In the case of Bernie Lootz, it changes because of Love—and that's Love with a capital "L" (the film is a strong believer in all things beginning with a capital letter). The Cooler views the "magical power of Love" in more than just the figurative sense; it has the power to change fate and to work miracles—it really is magic. What makes the film even more of an original is that it never wants or needs to explain its magic, which requires a substantial leap of faith for the viewer. You'll either be willing to trust the movie and go along with it, or you'll find yourself checking out and looking for something a little more grounded—but, more than likely, a lot less interesting.
The look of The Cooler accounts for much of what makes it great—its visual design is neo-retro, using noir lighting and production design, while giving the camera the freedom of mobility and energy of a Paul Thomas Anderson or David Fincher film. Beyond the fantastic title sequence (pay close attention to shot of the Lady Luck Casino) and opening tracking shot, the film is all whip-pans and quick zooms, crane shots and still images, deep focus and forced perspectives. The camera is effortlessly mobile, but never self-consciously stylized for its own sake—unlike the work of Michael Bay or (the even less talented) McG, the style of The Cooler actually serves the story that's being told. It becomes apparent as you watch the film how much care and craftsmanship went into every aspect of the production—the kind where, even if you don't like it (shame on you), you have to respect it. It's just an absolutely first-class piece of work.
For all of the film's visual inventiveness and grace, The Cooler still belongs to its actors. William H. Macy (whom the part was originally written for), sporting a limp and his trademark Droopy Dog sadness, here creates the most believable and likeable of his large canon of movie losers—one well-earned smile on that face is a better special effect than anything created by a team of computer wizards. Maria Bello manages to transcend the pitfalls of playing the traditional "hooker with a heart of gold" (though she's not exactly a hooker) and steps it all the way up to Macy's game—she's strong and sexy as hell, but still reveals a soft spot for Bernie that is completely genuine, not just a function of the plot. These two damaged souls make a knockout screen couple.
And then there's Alec Baldwin. Oh, Alec Baldwin. There seems to have been a public consensus of shock and amazement when the film was originally released—this mentality of "Hey, Alec Baldwin is back! And he can actually act!" Well, to hell with those people. Alec Baldwin has always ruled—just go back to Miami Blues or Glengarry Glen Ross if you don't believe me. His performance in The Cooler is sort of a cross between the two films mentioned above, combining the barking intensity of the latter with the unhinged psychosis of the former. Right or wrong, he's the conscience of the movie—not only as it pertains to Bernie's fate, but as one of the few willing to take a stand against the new, "Disneyland" Vegas in favor of an old-school mentality. Without ever playing the part for sympathy or infusing Shelly with any kind of cuddly interior, he manages to create one of cinema's most likeable sociopaths.
The entire cast—even beyond the lead actors—is uniformly terrific. Ron Livingston is perfectly fresh-faced and ice-cold; Paul Sorvino, as the casino's aging entertainer, is like a grizzly bear on his last legs. Even model-turned-actress Estella Warren, normally utilized as set dressing, manages a few choice moments; her scenes with Maria Bello manage to be effective without any words exchanged—only looks. It's a common occurrence in the film (I guess it's somewhat anti-Hollywood in that way)—characters communicate and advance the plot with eye contact and facial expressions, instead of the endless expository dialogue so many films rely upon. It doesn't hurt that all of the actors have great faces for doing so—there's a reason director Wayne Kramer references Sergio Leone on his commentary track.
I initially had reservations about the scene that resolves the film, feeling like it was a bit too Hand of God and conveniently pat. Seeing the film a second time, though, I took no issue with it whatsoever—I admired how expertly staged and well-timed the misdirection of the sequence plays, how it perfectly matches the tone of the film, and how it is exactly in keeping with the story being told. After all, it is a film about Luck.
Lions Gate's DVD of the film does it justice. The picture, presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer of 2.35:1 (the disc jacket inexplicably mislabels the aspect ratio as 1.85:1) does an outstanding job of representing the film's gorgeous photography and color palette. The noir lighting, the shadows, the deep greens (the color is something of a theme in the movie)—this is a film that has awarded great attention to detail in its cinematography and production design, and the disc does not let it down. The audio track is equally rewarding, paying special attention to Mark Isham's fantastic jazz score by isolating it on its own Dolby 5.1 track. His is one of the best film scores I've heard in a long time, accenting and heightening the action on screen without threatening to overpower it. It even stayed in my head for hours afterward—and when was the last time a movie's score did that?
The extras, while relatively sparse, do precisely what they should: enhance the experience of seeing the film. There are two audio commentaries offered, one with director/co-writer Wayne Kramer, co-writer Frank Hannah, and director of photography James Whitaker; and another with director/co-writer Wayne Kramer and composer Mark Isham (continuing the disc's celebration of his score). The first commentary, with the director and crew, is a bit heavy on first-time director enthusiasm—Kramer spends a great deal a time praising the finished product, albeit justifiably. Having learned that the film was shot on a budget of just $3 million and in only 21 days, one wishes that Kramer might have elaborated on how he managed to bring the film in so quickly and economically. Knowing both the schedule and budgetary limitations, however, one becomes keenly aware of exactly how well prepared everyone involved was—a film this good isn't made so efficiently by accident. The best parts of the commentary are those that let the viewer in on the film's many subtle tricks, such as the use of multiple suits for Bernie (what seems like a single suit begins to fit better as his luck changes). The movie is essentially a magic show, with the commentary serving to let us behind the curtain to see how it all works.
The second commentary, with director/co-writer Kramer and composer Mark Isham, deals less with the production aspects of the film in order to focus primarily on the score and its creation (as should be expected). Kramer discusses how he had already "temped" (placed music in temporarily, to eventually be replaced by an original score) the rough cut with music from other Isham scores like Little Man Tate and Afterglow, and knew that there was no one else he wanted to score The Cooler. There's a definite charm in the fact that at several points, Kramer veers away from the film at hand and simply begins to interview Isham as a fan, asking about why the score to Fly Away Home was never published or telling the story of how he once mailed Isham a check to make him a tape of the Point Break score. Kramer's affection for Isham and his music is consistent with the passion and enthusiasm with which he approaches the entire film. Isham's comments are just as valuable, providing a detailed glimpse into the creative process involved in scoring a film; while his comments are fairly specific to The Cooler, they could be applied to any film score—he paints a vivid picture of the merging of music and film. Alongside Randy Newman's commentary for Pleasantville, this is probably the best composer commentary track I've heard on a DVD.
The DVD also features two other supplements. The first is a storyboard/shot comparison that lets two sequences—the fantastic opening tracking shot through the casino, as well as its mirroring sequence, where Bernie's luck turns around—play out while simultaneously displaying the corresponding storyboards. The feature once again demonstrates director Kramer's preparation, as we see that he personally mapped out every shot by hand before committing anything to celluloid. The other bonus feature is an episode of the Sundance Channel's Anatomy of a Scene, which runs about twenty minutes and provides another breakdown of the sequence in which love has begun to reverse Bernie's luck. The feature, like Kramer's commentary, digs deep into the film's bag of tricks to cover nearly every facet of production. The director of photography, editor, writer, actors, costume and production designers—all are represented, each detailing the skill and effects they employed to make the sequence work (multiple lighting effects were used to change the way Bernie appears throughout the film; giant dice were dropped into the frame at a given point to force a more surreal and stylized perspective). At the end of the show, the finished scene plays out in its entirety so that the viewer can see (or, in my case, marvel at) the culmination of the cast and crew's efforts.
Also available, by selecting the Lions Gate logo, are bonus trailers for Godsend, Girl With a Pearl Earring, and Shattered Glass, as well as a promotional spot for movie's soundtrack that's fairly worthless. The actual trailer for The Cooler is disappointingly not included.
I love The Cooler. Love it. Watching it, a kind of depression set over me—mostly during the disc's supplemental features—as it dawned on me that the majority of Hollywood films don't aim for even one tenth of this film's attention to detail or creativity. Movies like The Cooler spoil you for other movies.
One hundred percent innocent—the whole lot of them.
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