The Cooler is the kind of movie stealthily designed to fool people that it is quality fare.
Director and co-writer Wayne Kramer (who has since made the Paul Walker action vehicle Running Scared ) achieves this task by studiously aping his masters – such as Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson – without once stooping to the vigorous vulgarity with which they regularly risk their reputations.
If, like me, you find yourself compelled to watch Scorsese's inexhaustibly rich Casino (1995) several times a year, you will be impressed by little in The Cooler. One more time, it offers a nostalgic lament for the glory days of Las Vegas gambling, before the commercial glitz moved in. As casino owner Shelly (Alec Baldwin) unsubtly states: "She used to be a lady, now she's a whore!"
Shelly is a demonic figure, and the honourable 'little man' he has in the grip of a Faustian pact is Bernie (William H. Macy) – a 'cooler' who deranges the winning streak of lucky gamblers simply by standing next to them. In an unexpected turn of events that worries Shelly, Bernie – who is about to leave his casino job – finds love in the form of whore-with-a-golden-heart Natalie (Maria Bello). And when Bernie is happy, his presence no longer wields that precious, cooling effect.
The twists and power plays in this scenario are predictable enough, but what drags them down further is the heavy-handed dramatic symbolism laid on by Kramer. Macy, one of the screen's most overrated actors, brings his familiar repertoire of Mamet-style theatrical mannerisms to the table.
There is one curious aspect to The Cooler. The plot depends on an improbable, fanciful element: Bernie's magical cooling ability. Taking that license a little further, the film dares, at a decisive moment, to insert one of the most extravagant coincidences in cinema history.
If only the entire movie had exhibited that sort of nerve, it might have become something original and captivating.
© Adrian Martin May 2004