The Good: Acting, Mood (if you can handle a depressing tone)
The Bad: Horrible characters, Predictable plot and twists, and Dismal pacing
The Basics: When a casino bad luck charm falls in love, he puts himself in jeopardy with the evil casino owner.
I didn't read much about The Cooler before I got it out. The truth is, it had William H. Macy and he has a pretty good track record with me as far as satisfying me with his performances in movies. Thus, I got out The Cooler and prepared myself to enjoy it. Man, I wish I could.
Bernie is a man, hired by a Las vegas casino because he has horrible luck. He is what is called a "cooler," a man with contagious bad luck who simply approaches those who have fortune riding their rolls and cards and their luck will turn bad and they will lose all sorts of money. These are Bernie's last days as working as a cooler for Shelly, the owner of the casino. Shelly sees losing Bernie as losing an important asset to his business. Unfortunately for Shelly, Bernie is already lost to him as he has fallen in love with Natalie, who grows to love him. Bernie's luck changes and his ability to "cool" the tables disappears, causing Shelly to get angry. And Shelly's anger is not to be trifled with, a fact no one can deny as Shelly is on edge over "investors" who want to change the face and substance of his casino.
Bernie's last days as a cooler are violent, filled with sex and heartbreak. Bernie is, despite his knowledge of the etymology of the phrase, an easy mark. He wants to see the best in people, including his no-good son, Mikey and his coked up girlfriend. Shelly, despite his rage and selfish manipulations is able to see people as they are and he feels threatened by his loss of power within his casino.
What works is the acting. Hands down, the best thing about the movie is the acting. Alec Baldwin is impressive as Shelly. Given his usually bright public persona, the darkness he portrays in The Cooler is truly astonishing and evidence to any nay-sayer that he can act exceptionally well. Baldwin's anger plays off the chill logic presented by the words, tones and body language of Ron Livingston. Livingston is more than just someone cast for good looks; its his whole casual and quietly deadly demeanor that keep many of the scenes in the movie truly frightening.
Mario Bello shines as Natalie. Despite the "plot twist" involving her character that we, the viewer, see a mile away, Bello is not to blame for any of the character's problems. She plays Natalie with a sense of jaded purpose and loss of heart that makes her character seem very real and the choices she makes very understandable. She has an excellent sense of timing, especially with quiet pauses, that makes her character seem realistically uncertain and coerced and makes us immediately empathize with her character.
William H. Macy is, as so often in the movies he is in, the one to watch in The Cooler. He plays the role of the loser and hustler with such cool, calm reserve that he makes us believe Bernie could be a force of bad luck. Macy breathes life into a character that it could make us absolutely miserable to watch. From the way he eyes his son with love to the way he reaches out for Natalie, Bernie has such subtle, real looks and emotions in his body language created by Macy that it's easy to see why he was cast for the role. No one else could pull it off like he does.
The problem is, there's not a single decent character in the entire movie. All the while one might want to empathize with Bernie and celebrate the love he has found, we must keep in mind that this is a guy who by profession helps another bad man to rob a bunch of desperate gamblers. Bernie, while easily the most sympathetic character, is still a pretty crappy human being at the end of the day as he uses his "power" to take advantage of his fellow human being.
There are a lot of comparisons that could be drawn between Shelly, who consciously manipulates circumstances and individuals, and Bernie, who simply by his nature causes those around him to suffer. At the end of the day, though, Bernie is probably the lesser of the two evils as he is largely a tool used by Shelly. Shelly is the real villain and he's a villain who is impossible to like, to empathize with. Who cares that Larry (Livingston's developer character) is trying to take the casino away from him, stepping on his territory? He's a bad man getting pushed aside by another bad man who wants change.
So, the short of it is that all of the characters are various shades of evil and they spend the entire movie screwing each other over. Royally. Shelly uses violence and anger, Bernie uses his innate bad luck, Natalie uses her sexuality and her willingness to be used by Shelly. These are not nice people we're watching for 100 minutes.
The problem is these are bad people doing bad things over five days. The mood of the movie stretches out their misery and the angst beyond tolerable or entertaining levels. We are watching people suffer in this movie and it doesn't take long before that becomes less entertaining and more miserable. It becomes unpleasant to watch these unpleasant people. You can have movies or television shows where bad people are doing bad things (The Usual Suspects, reviewed here, comes immediately to mind), but often it has to be fast paced. We can't become trapped in how miserable they are as people. Even Magnolia (reviewed here), where many of the characters are living out a miserable night, the pace is kept up and the interweaving of storylines keeps the viewer engaged. Here, we simply become mired in the misery of these lost souls.
I wanted to like this movie. I like other casino movies, like Hard Eight (reviewed here!) and that's no speedfest on the eyes. But it has a decent mood and pace. The Cooler is all about bad people doing bad things until the viewer feels dirty and depressed. Even the fine acting does not make it worth that.
For other works with Ron Livingston, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Going The Distance
The Time Traveler’s Wife
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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