The Cooler
directed by Wayne Kramer
(Lions Gate, 2003)

Here's a great idea for a movie:

A perpetual loser works in a modern-day old-fashioned Las Vegas casino, where his job is simply to cool off hot-streak gamblers by merely brushing past them, touching the dice or cards or offering an appreciative wink or a nod.

But the loser's luck changes when he falls in love with one of the casino's cocktail waitresses -- and that's bad, because his very old-fashioned modern-day boss is counting on The Cooler to save his casino millions of dollars by spreading bad luck to anyone who has the misfortune to have good fortune at one of the boss's tables. And the loser's boss doesn't take "I quit" for an answer.

Now, given this premise, and the possibility of getting professional schlemiel/schlemozzle William H. Macy to play the perpetual loser, do you:

1) Devise an intricate scheme by which the loser -- let's call him Bernie Lootz -- and the cocktail waitress attempt to triumph over their boss by turning his dark side against him, only to be brought down by their own failings?
2) Bury Bernie, his babe and the boss under a mountain of cliches and loose ends, then try to resurrect them at the last minute with the most unlikely happy ending ever devised in the vicinity of Hollywood.

Sadly, writer-director Wayne Kramer chose door No. 2, and The Cooler, an otherwise promising film with a great look and an even better cast, craps out before it can achieve even half its potential.

Not that there aren't great scenes, such as Lootz (Macy) sitting in bed in his sleazy motel room watching a televangelist perform fake miracles while his head bounces on the head board in time to the couple in the next room. There's also the follow-up scene in which the aforementioned cocktail waitress, Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello), helps Lootz get his revenge.

And there's some real dramatic tension, too, as in the scene where Lootz's boss, Shelly (Alec Baldwin), decides to take some old-fashioned revenge against Lootz's long-lost son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy), and Mikey's seemingly pregnant girlfriend Charlene (Estella Warren) for their attempts to clean out Shelly's casino. Baldwin was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his work, and it's scenes like this that made him a candidate.

But for every gasper like the one above, there's a verbal or visual cliche, or both, waiting just around the corner. Often it's a lump of dialogue so overblown the actors can't spit it out any better than the audience can swallow it.

Not convinced? Then hear what Lootz has to say when Natalie sees her face in the mirror after one of Shelly's especially unpleasant re-education sessions:

Bernie: "You look in the mirror, you don't like what you see, don't believe it. Look in my eyes, I am the only mirror you're ever gonna need."

Even the musical score, occasionally pumped up by a lounge classic courtesy of casino crooner Buddy Stafford (Paul Sorvino), keeps returning to a mournful wail of Chinatown-like horns. But Vegas ain't Chinatown, and what moved audiences to tears in 1974 is likely to move them into the aisles 30 years later.

You may want to see The Cooler for Macy or Baldwin or Bello or even Sorvino. But don't think you have to stick around for the ending. You've already seen it. And you didn't think much of it the first time, either.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 26 February 2005

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