Comfortable and Furious

The Cooler

Directed by Wayne Kramer

Written by Frank Hannah & Wayne Kramer

– William H. Macy as Bernie Lootz
– Alec Baldwin as Shelly Kaplow
– Maria Bello as Natalie Belisario
– Shawn Hatosy as Mikey

I know I’ve said it before, but I am really starting to like Alec Baldwin. Hell, starting to? Be he a Baldwin or not, I really like the fucking guy. His performance in the The Cooler settles it. End of argument. Speaking of performances in The Cooler, William H. Macy is really good, too. You come to expect tightly wound, well-wrought performances from Macy. Ever since Boogie Nights, it should be clear to everyone that if you need a first-class schmuck for your picture, call William H. Just don’t mention Jurassic Park 3. But the real surprise here is Maria Bello. The last thing I (remember) seeing her in was the eternally terrible Bruckheimer bullshit fest Coyote Ugly. In The Cooler, however, she is excellent. Bello strikes just the right balance between a hooker with a heart of gold and… well, actually, her character doesn’t evolve all that much, but she really nails that whole hooker with a heart of gold fantasy.

Bello is a hooker because Macy is a cooler. More importantly, he is a cooler working for Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin), a casino owner or manager or something. Exactly what Shelly’s job is never gets sorted. Shelly might work for the mob, he acts like it, but he might just be your run-of-the-mill casino boss. Anyhow, he is so old-school that rather than using more modern methods of changing players’ luck (muted wallpaper, subliminal messages in music), he just relies upon what worked in the past, i.e. superstition, busting kneecaps, etc. Namely, keeping a “cooler” on the payroll.

A cooler is an unlucky person. So unlucky, in fact, that just by sitting in on a hand of blackjack, all the players at the table go from being winners to losers. Farfetched sure, but I have gambled enough in my life to know that some players are superstitious to the point of comedy. For example, a good friend of mine and I were playing blackjack at the Sahara once. They have these famous player chips–they stick some old card-shark’s mug on a $5 chip-and my friend decided that one particular chip was “lucky.” He went on a tear, winning hand after hand. I kept drinking and drinking and eventually picked up his lucky chip. I just wanted to check it out. He started screaming at me. I had changed his luck. He then dropped four or five hands in a row, cursing me the entire time, and then got up and left. Scientifically it means bupkis. Still, to this day, my friend is still pissed off at me.

I digress…

Bernie Lootz (Macy) is pathetic. Aside from being totally unlucky when it comes to cards, wheels, slots and dice, there is never any cream for his coffee. He lives in a motel (Who on earth lives in a motel? The scriptwriters are naifs. More on this later.) where his neighbor has loud sex with hookers every night, practically on Bernie’s headboard. And on and on. His life sucks. There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. It came across a little murky, but because of some old gambling debt, Bernie has basically been indentured to Shelly. Also, at some point, Shelly busted up Bernie’s knee with a hammer because of the same debt. Whatever.

Bernie has seven days left and then he is free to leave the Golden Shangri La Casino, and more importantly, Las Vegas itself. Enter Natalie. She’s a hard-case cocktail waitress working the nickel slots. Bernie takes a shine to her and gets her serving drinks to the high rollers at the table games. She asks him out for a drink. Bernie is of course suspicious–he is a total fucking failure at everything, why would an attractive and not-too-beat down (by Vegas standards) woman ask him out? He even asks Natalie if she is a hooker (she is) and Natalie says no. One thing I really liked about the movie is that in order to make Natalie look stupid and trashy, the writers made her character really into astrology. My hat’s off to you gentlemen for that one.

From there on in you can sort of guess the rest. Natalie falls for Bernie, and changes his luck. Suddenly, Bernie’s cup runneth over with cream. Shelly, who hired Natalie to seduce Bernie in hopes of keeping him and his valuable bad luck around a bit longer, becomes furious at the change. All sorts of tough-guy, strong-arm antics that we’ve all seen a hundred times ensue, and in the end, Bernie gets away with the money and the girl. Nothing wrong with any of that, per se. However, while the acting was top-shelf and the directing quite good, The Cooler was let down in a big way by the fools who wrote it.

The clichés were coming so fast and furious that I didn’t even have time to turn to my girlfriend and tell her what was going to happen. Examples? Paul Sorvino is in the movie as a down-on-his-luck Frank Sinatra impersonator. I mean lounge singer. Well, the writers went so far as to have Sorvino mention that “Frank” was rolling around in his grave as a result of the poor performance he just gave. OK, fine, cutesy Tarantino crap. But then it turns out that Sorvino is a heroin (duh) addict.

And of course, Shelly pays him in smack, and of course we are treated to a gratuitous close-up of Sorvino rigging his arm, the dirty spoon, the needle, the track marks, etc. When, when will Hollywood learn that depicting heroin use in film in no way connotes depth of any kind? Nothing could be more tired. It is exactly the same as assuming that because a character is black, they instantly have soul or street cred or whatever. Boring, repetitive, tired, and of course lame. Besides, who the hell buys Paul Sorvino as an old time junkie? The guy weighs three hundred pounds. Just make him an old drunk or something.

Anyhow, there are lots more instances like this. I will again mention the motel that Bernie lives in because that right there is proof to me that the writers have no friends that live in Vegas. In addition, there were a few totally overblown and heavy-handed bits that were simply clumsy–like Sorvino telling Baldwin of a Discovery channel program about old lions being beaten out of the “pride” by young upstarts. Baldwin’s Shelly was continually assaulted and lessened by a weak script that had his character pulling out every bad guy trick imaginable. With just about any other actor, the film would have been beyond belief.

Shelly would have been another in a way too long line of thoughtless, soulless cinematic toughs. Also of note is the fact that everything felt too rushed, too hurried. Things developed plot-wise, but not in a thoughtful way. It was a stampede. Like the whole subplot about Bernie’s son. Or the subplot about the Shangri La being remade into a casino that can compete with the big boys on the Strip. The movie clocked in at just about ninety minutes and it felt about an hour too short. Especially when two subplots have to work themselves out. Could this be the fault of the studio? Or just the writers? Either way, The Cooler was half-baked. And the ending. Look, if Paul Thomas Anderson sues anybody involved in this film for plagiarism, my girlfriend is a pretty good lawyer.

I suppose I have to talk about the sex scenes and how refreshingly realistic they were. I guess. Apparently, they had to airbrush out Bello’s pubic hair when Macy was going down on her to avoid an NC-17 rating. What struck me as more interesting than the “reality” of the lovemaking itself was the fact that Bello was a real woman. She doesn’t have breast implants. She does have cellulite, which you get a good look at, along with Macy’s ass, in a very funny and charming scene. I’m sure all the fan-boys out there who have never actually encountered a woman and who consider A-list porn stars like Pam Anderson and Denise Richards to be ideals were appalled, but to me, the sight of Bello was wonderful. Actual female flesh–nothing could be more erotic. Also, knowing that I have slept with way hotter chicks was something of a personal victory. To wrap it up, this movie was frustrating because while there was certainly plenty to love, there was nearly as much to hate. I’ll recommend The Cooler, but just for the superb acting and some pretty nifty camera work.

Special Ruthless Ratings

  • Overall: 6
  • Acting: 9
  • Directing: 7
  • Story: 4
  • Re-watchability: 7
  • Bello’s ass: 7
  • Macy’s ass: 4
  • My girlfriend’s ass: 10
  • Is a guy from N’Sync in the movie: Yes, but not the Bass asshole who was going to go up in space. It’s the fat one, uh, Joey Fatone.