The Cooler is a completely original film that combines genres in a fresh way and gets it right. On one level it is a noir tale of tough guys in the gambling world of Las Vegas, pictured in saturated colors used in sharp contrasts of light and shadow. Wayne Kramer, in his directing debut, captures the nervous, edgy, hollow sense of the gambling joints with remarkable authenticity.
At the same time, The Cooler is a fable, the story of Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy), a guy who is a total loser–at the tables, in his failed marriage to a junky, in his thoroughly obnoxious son. His houseplants die and even his cat runs away. Lootz is so self-effacing that he blames himself for all of his lousy luck, even to the point of being grateful to his boss, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), who cured him of his gambling habit by knee-capping him.
Macy’s entrance, seen from the back, wearing a baggy suit and limping awkwardly, immediately establishes theoutline of the character, but, as with everything else in The Cooler, there are surprises in store. Lootz’ job is to be a "cooler"–his bad luck spreads around him like an aura. So if a gambler in the casino is winning too much, Lootz has only to stand at the table to turn the winner’s luck sour.
But when Lootz gets chummy with an attractive waitress at the casino (Maria Bello) and an unlikely romance blooms, he gains a new degree of confidence–and maybe loses his cooling powers. The relationship, both erotic and emotional,is developed on screen with subtlety and humor; it provides the human core of the movie.
Meanwhile, boss Shelly is having his own problems with the owners of the casino who want to replace it with a hotel/entertainment/casino complex to compete with the newer places in town. Shelly likes things the way they are, including the strong-armed control he keeps over the Shangri-La. Watching the action in the casino on the television monitors in his office, Shelly is a direct parallel to Ed Harris in The Truman Show, except far more dangerous.
The screenplay, by Kramer along with Frank Hannah, continually delivers up fresh turns of plot, peels away layers of character, and supplies a stream of sharp observations which add both depth and generous dollops of humor to the film.
Macy has been milked for publicity for this movie; now over 50, he finally plays a leading man and gets to play in a sex scene (or two) with a beautiful woman. That seems a trivial milestone though, for an actor who has built a body of work on screen of ever-increasing skill and depth, a collection of memorable characters from a salesman afflicted with cerebral palsy in Door to Door, to a gentile victim of anti-Semitism in Focus, to a film director in State and Main, to the one-time Quiz Kid in Magnolia. This guy never stops working and that’s a great thing for movie fans.
Maria Bello (AutoFocus, but maybe best known for the TV series E.R.), gets the right combination of toughness and vulnerability in her portrayal of Natalie. In smaller roles, Paul Sorvino as a junky crooner, Shawn Hatosy as the son from Hell, and Ellen Greene as a barmaid who keeps running out of cream all add to the local color.