The Cooler (2003)

Directed by Wayne Kramer

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Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) has rotten luck in The Cooler, but when he meets Natalie (Maria Bello), things start to turn around.  This is a problem because Bernie’s job depends on his poor luck.  Nicknamed the “cooler,” Bernie haunts the floors of a Las Vegas casino, directed to specific tables in order to end someone’s hot streak.

The man capitalizing on Bernie’s misery is head honcho Shelly (Alec Baldwin), one of those tough-talking relics of an older age, the type you see in the first half of Martin Scorsese’s Casino.

Shelly sees Bernie as his secret weapon.  When the story opens Shelly receives pressure from a new, younger executive, Larry (Ron Livingston) to make the casino more family friendly, following the lead of the other Vegas casinos.  Shelly sees this as a betrayal of something sacred.  He wants his casino to remain as it’s always been, but his lounge singer is a drug addict, his business is struggling, and the only man who keeps his customers’ luck in check, Bernie, plans to leave Vegas for good in a matter of days.

The film is at its best when it emphasizes Bernie’s poor luck as something cosmic.  There is never cream for his coffee, his neighbors are constantly fornicating (so that they’re thumping hard against the wall and against Bernie), and worst of all, it seems, is that he thinks he deserves it.

Bernie has a severe limp from a beating Shelly gave him years ago when he had been a degenerate gambler and failed to own up to his losses.  He believes this was a blessing because it convinced him to give up his addiction.  Later in the story Bernie’s continued cluelessness and gullibility will become extremely frustrating, not just from a character standpoint but a story one as well.  The Cooler is a frustrating movie that feels like a fever dream for its main character.

So Bernie meets Natalie, a young waitress who takes an inexplicable liking to him.  It’s unclear to Bernie why she is so forward with him, but later we learn that Shelly pointed her his direction as a way of convincing Bernie to stay in town.  The problem for Shelly is that Natalie soon falls in love with Bernie, for some reason.

Part of the reason I had such a hard time sticking with this movie was that I never believed any of the relationships.  I never understood Bernie’s loyalty to Shelly, though it made some sense if you go with the idea that Bernie is just a sad sack dude with nothing going his way.  Because his luck is so bad it makes sense he might be willing to stick with the only person who would employ him.  The problem is that Shelly continually shows his dark side, and Bernie expresses shock and horror when he sees it, and yet he still sticks by his side, far longer than any reasonable person would.

Bernie’s romance with Natalie is meant to be the heart of the movie, but again there’s no chemistry.  They have one wild, strange night together, and then the story yada yadas their affection.  We jump forward in time and boom, they’re apparently in love, in a matter of days.  Her affection for him only makes sense as a sign of pity, which it was at the start, but we never see the point at which that pivots into something more genuine.

There’s also the relationship between Bernie and his son, Mikey (Shawn Hotosy), a young man with a strained relationship to Bernie who pops into town to coerce his father into giving him some money.  Mikey has a pregnant girlfriend who we soon learn is faking the pregnancy.  Their arrival is another example of the ways life seems to sh*t on our main character, but Mikey’s arrival, piggy backing on Natalie’s arrival into Bernie’s life, feels too neat, too coincidental.

Mikey is only there to betray his father and remind him that his luck remains rotten.  When Mikey nearly cons $150,000 out of Shelly’s casino, Shelly breaks both of the young man’s legs and then holds Bernie up to a promise to pay the casino back… even though Mikey never actually got away with the money.

This is meant to provide the final momentous push to the end of the story, but Bernie appears to completely forget about the concern for money.

Look, I really, really didn’t like this movie, and I’m starting to lose track of all the reasons why.  The way the characters speak too each other feels forced and unnatural.  The plot meanders and completely forgets about certain characters while forcing others to act against what has been established by their character.

An example of this is Shelly’s third act kindness shown towards Bernie which comes following a single conversation in which we have no indication that Shelly’s feelings towards Bernie changed.  There’s also that hotshot Larry who is at first disgusted by Shelly’s violent behavior, and by the end he goes further than Shelly ever seemed to.  Basically the story flips those two characters to try to make Shelly suddenly likable and Larry suddenly the enemy.

The exposition is terrible too.

Oh and the worst thing is just how predictable the story is.  When Shelly realizes Bernie’s poor luck has worn off, meaning gamblers are making off with tons of money, his goal is to make Bernie as miserable as he used to be.  Bernie should know that his own good fortune is bad for business, but he completely disregards this and tells Shelly that he’s in love with Natalie.  So we know right away that Shelly is going to try and take Natalie out in order to make Bernie miserable again.  Bernie, what the hell, you should have the foresight to know not to tell Shelly about Natalie, good lord.

Later we get the scene in which Bernie suddenly realizes he’s lucky except… we already know this.  We’ve seen the people around him experience his luck, but he just hadn’t realized it.  The audience should never be ahead of the character in this regard unless the desired impact is fear, dread or comedy.  The impact here is none of those things.  We’re supposed to feel happy for Bernie, but I don’t really like Bernie.

Another thing, Shelly shows himself to be ruthless, and yet when it comes to Natalie he holds back.  Sure, he throws her head against a mirror, but based on what we know about Shelly, this action shouldn’t be out of the ordinary, and it shouldn’t surprise him as it seems to.  I also think the movie played up the horror of that assault on Natalie in order to make us forget or ignore the fact that Shelly doesn’t take it further.

Man even this review is terrible.  I can’t really think right now.

I wanted this movie to commit one way or another.  It could be a comedy, as it kind of is in act 1, something in the tone of Stranger Than Fiction.  Part of the movie wants to be Casino, and another part wants to be a sappy romantic drama.  The movie is at its best in the first act, even though I still didn’t much enjoy it.

This is a story based on luck or the lack of it.  The final moment in the film is based on extreme luck, and sure, it’s kind of playful, and it works well enough, but the entire movie should’ve committed to the absurdity of that final scene.

I guess that’s all I have to say.  The performances are a little too much too.  There’s a scene in which the drug-addicted lounge singer (Paul Sorvino) screams for his drugs in a strange way that helped pushed me out of the movie, and near the end Shelly stomps on the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Who Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good To like a kid having a tantrum.

Yeah, strange movie.  I really had trouble with it.

Up Next: Secret Honor (1984), Lost Highway (1997), Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

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