On the surface, The Cooler is about a simple yet complicated subject: luck. What better a topic for a film that takes place in and around a Las Vegas casino? Luck of the draw, luck of the spin - some people have it, some don’t. And some people… well, they not only don’t have luck on their side, but they spread around their bad luck, turning hot games cold. They’re known as “coolers” and in the old days coolers were used by casino owners and the mafia to end people’s winning sprees and keep the casinos profitable.
The story of The Cooler goes farther then just luck. It’s not an attempt to explain the concept of luck, as you might think. It makes no effort to predict why the titular cooler, Bernie Lootz, has bad luck. Instead it’s a story of trying to find where one belongs, whether that someone is an old school gangster whose territory is being threatened by the newer generation, or someone who’s just looking for love and a new life. With amazing skill and talent, writer/director Wayne Kramer and a cast featuring William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, and Maria Bello bring real heart to what could have been a very dry boring story.
I was amazed when I heard Alec Baldwin’s name listed as a nominee for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Cooler. I’ve always been of the opinion that while Baldwin can play military officers and mobsters, he’s of little use in other roles. Before that lack of range has hurt him, but as his portrayal of old school Mafioso Shelly shows, sometimes fitting a specialization can work wonders. Baldwin completely earned his nomination in what could have been a one note role, but with Baldwin’s abilities Shelly is more then just a mobster, he’s an old school man in a new world.
Baldwin may be great, but it’s William H. Macy who is the star of the show. Macy has shown his penchant for losers before with roles like Little Bill in Boogie Nights or Fargo’s Jerry Lundegaard. You’d think sooner or later the loser role would become shtick, but instead Macy adds another unique character to his résumé with Bernie Lootz. Macy brings to Bernie a certain dynamic. This isn’t just a loser who spreads bad luck around. He’s a real person. When his luck changes we feel happy for him, and as his life potentially slides back downwards we can’t help but feel sorry for him. With subtle changes to costume and hair, Lootz grows as a character through the movie, and Macy’s hair follicles show more acting ability then some Hollywood big shots.
Other performances of note are Ron Livingston as the younger gangster attempting to make changes to Shelly’s territory, and Paul Sorvino as lounge singer Buddy Stafford who is a strong representation of Shelly’s old world. Sorvino gets one scene to truly shine in and he takes completely control of that scene. Finally Maria Bello must be recognized. As Bernie’s love interest Natalie, her acting is strong, and she has a lot of courage for the amount of nudity she takes on, but mostly she must be thanked for having hands large enough to keep the audience from seeing William H. Macy’s bait and tackle. It’s bad enough we have to see his rear end almost as much (if not more) then we get to see Bello’s, but full frontal would have been a line that could have ruined movies for the rest of my life. Strangely enough, the movie nearly recieved an NC-17 rating, although Macy’s twig and berries had nothing to do with that. Instead a different shot had to be tightened up so as not to expose some of Bello’s unstyled hair.
With music that builds an atmosphere of old Vegas vs. new Vegas, fantastic decisions in lighting, and some interesting (albeit at times disruptive) editing, Kramer’s tale of luck manages to turn into a solid love story with an unlikely hero. The plot is predictable at times, and at other times reveals small twists, but neither the surprises nor the predictability hurt the overall story. If he can manage more mobster stories like this, Kramer could very likely become a future Scorsese. If he branches beyond a mafia tale, who knows where his career could take him.
The disk for The Cooler is unfortunately sparse on extras, and what little is there starts to become grating after a while. It’s really a shame to see a good movie get a less then stellar treatment on DVD. Since The Cooler wasn’t a wide release and didn’t get much theatrical attention, it would have been nice to at least see the theatrical trailer. Alas, the days of including the trailer for the movie you’re watching seem to be passing by. Instead slightly hidden on the DVD you get a commercial for The Cooler soundtrack and a few other Lion’s Gate offerings.
What is included is an episode of The Sundance Channel’s “Anatomy of a Scene”. While the episode specifically focuses on a point in the movie where Bernie realizes his luck is changing, most of the mechanics of the movie are discussed. Lighting, costumes, and such are explained by not only talking about the selection for that scene, but how it contrasts with other moments of the movie. For example Macy’s costume in the scene is a nice tailored, brighter colored suit as opposed to the suit he wears when his luck is bad which is darker and 4 sizes too large. Macy talks about his acting choices for the scene, which is great, but leaves you wanting more. When you have an actor who is skilled, you enjoy hearing him discuss his craft. Unfortunately that’s really the only bit with Macy on the DVD.
The main Commentary track is made up of Kramer, co-writer Frank Hannah, and director of photography Jim Whitaker. As commentary tracks go, I’ve never had more confusing feelings about one. The track is extremely informative, although a lot of the information they talk about is revealed in the “Anatomy of a Scene”. On the other hand it just feels very PC as they compliment each other and everyone else involved with the production. When they discuss Paul Sorvino’s role they mention it was originally planned for Wayne Newton who backed out in the 11th hour. Even though he deserted their production, Kramer pours compliments on the singer. It really opened my eyes to how commentary tracks are made these days. No longer are they a great chance to reveal secrets about the movie’s production. Now they are just another method of promoting the film and showering cast and crew with praise. Commentary tracks used to be a great thing for movie lovers: a way to learn the secret side of the movie industry. Even as an independent film, The Cooler shows the new mainstream side of Commentary tracks – political backwashing.
Music helps build the atmosphere of the movie, and that particular aspect of the movie gets the most attention on the DVD. There is an isolated music audio track, which is one of my favorite features on DVDs and frankly isn’t offered enough in movies. A second commentary track pairs Kramer with composer Mark Isham, and falls prey to the same trap as the other commentary track – it’s interesting, but too gooey with praise to make it through the whole track.
Other then the two commentary tracks, isolated music score and the Sundance special, all you get are a couple of multi-angle storyboard sequences that compare the storyboards with what was actually in the film. Storyboard sequences are usually pretty bland in dramas, and really only hold my interest in big budget action films, but the two included on the DVD aren’t bad.
The Cooler is worth a look as it will appeal to many different tastes – gangster flicks, quirky love tales, and movies about unknown forces like luck. Kramer hints on the commentary track about releasing an NC-17 version, but then leads the audience to believe the only thing cut was one shot, so I can’t see another release of The Cooler coming to stores soon. Until then, this is the best release we’ll get, which unfortunately isn’t as good as I’d like.