The Cooler (2003) is one of those atypical movies during the summer months – one that boasts more than its trailer would suggest. As the sun comes out and Hollywood’s marketing machine moves into top gear, audiences hope and pray that some films will deliver on their initial promise. Sadly, few ever really amount to much, and so it is to writer/director Wayne Kramer’s credit that he has crafted such an unexpectedly resonant story and managed to release it amidst the bookend behemoths of The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Spiderman 2 (2004).
Set in the gaudy desert paradise of Las Vegas, The Cooler belies its setting and is perhaps one of the dowdiest and downtrodden entries in the casino movie canon. Quite deliberately sweeping aside any notions of glitz, glamour and modernity, director Kramer’s Las Vegas is a pitiful place that reflects the sad and lonely people that live there. The film is mournful and introspective, spending most of its time detailing the rituals and habits of its characters, and avoiding the neon hue that one has come to expect from counterparts such as Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Casino (1995).
William H. Macy plays the eponymous ‘cooler’ Bernie Lootz, a dejected and plaintive little man living in a bedsit apartment on skid row. His daily lot is to tour the roulette tables and poker games of his local casino, the Shangri-La, and ‘cool’ them by sapping the luck from any high-rolling customers. One brush of Bernie’s sleeve or touch of his hand is enough to destroy the best winning streak and keep boss Shelly Kaplow, a truculent Alec Baldwin, off his back. However Bernie soon becomes disillusioned with his meagre existence and informs Shelly that he is leaving at the end of the week. Desperate to hold on to Bernie, and his traditional view of what Las Vegas is, Shelly pays Natalie, a hardened casino waitress played by the beautiful Maria Bello, to seduce Bernie and coax him into staying around. Yet despite her best efforts Natalie falls in love with the luckless Bernie and the two then make plans to escape Shelly and the casino together.
Fledgling director Wayne Kramer does exceptionally well in taking this overly-familiar, ‘lady and the tramp’ premise and visualising it with a keen, and at times surprising, realist edge. Bernie’s first sexual encounter with Natalie, for instance, is a graphic and maturely-directed sequence, redolent with the kind of fumbling and awkwardness that is so often missing from the perfunctory American sex scene (it is also a brave and courageous move for Macy who, approaching 55, remains willing to expose himself in such an intimate manner for his art). The film’s approach to violence is equally vivid. It punctuates events in an almost uninvited way, running just below the surface as an ever-present threat to Bernie’s happiness.
Co-written by Frank Hannah, The Cooler is a story of unusual depth, at times hilariously funny (Bernie and Natalie’s bedroom improvisation is side-splitting) and then jolting and horrific. The performances are similarly fluent, with each performer carrying off the considerable characterizations drawn for them. And while Baldwin may steal the show in terms of energy and swagger the real acting is reserved for the sidelines. Paul Sorvino’s few scenes as Buddy, the junkie casino performer, are haunting and brimming with pathos.
Perhaps one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer season, The Cooler paints a credible picture of the banality at the heart of the American dream. Its refreshing take on sexual and narrative realism (certain storylines receive no conventional resolution) is marred only by a slightly fanciful ending, but it’ll be a tough viewer who does not end up rooting for the loving couple as they drive into the sunrise.