The Cooler (15)

Hearts are trumps but nobody's winning
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Weary of Las Vegas, The Cooler's casino-stooge hero dreams of "somewhere that they have clocks on the wall, where you can tell night from day." This is what gambling films tend to evoke - the sense of being stuck indoors round the clock, with the light-show never stopping, a feverish empty rattle in the background, a phoney perpetual excitement. No wonder film is obsessed with casinos: it sounds like being trapped in a multiplex.

Weary of Las Vegas, The Cooler's casino-stooge hero dreams of "somewhere that they have clocks on the wall, where you can tell night from day." This is what gambling films tend to evoke - the sense of being stuck indoors round the clock, with the light-show never stopping, a feverish empty rattle in the background, a phoney perpetual excitement. No wonder film is obsessed with casinos: it sounds like being trapped in a multiplex.

Some enterprising cinema should programme a 24-hour festival of claustrophobic gambling movies - ideally, selected from that strange sub-class of existential casino pics, in which The Cooler takes its place alongside Hard Eight, Croupier, Alex Cox's intriguing misfire The Winner and the recent Spanish oddity Intacto. In such films, the casino's hermetically sealed biosphere is less a place than a state of paradox. The great paradox in gambling cinema weighs the idea of blind unpredictable luck against that of fate and the sense that an obscure, implacable design governs the characters' wins and losses. Of course, that design is the film-makers', and the cruellest among them will throw their characters onto the table like dumb tumbling dice. In gambling films, players win - that is, assert their own freedom against tyrannical destiny - only if the director decides to let them.

The Cooler offers a new, ruthless twist on this impasse, with a hero whose survival depends on his staying a loser. William H Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a man whose misfortune is his meal ticket. He's employed by the Shangri-La casino as a "cooler": if any punter hits a lucky streak, manager Shelly (Alec Baldwin) sends him in, Bernie's fingers casually brush the table and the winner starts to lose. As Macy's creased, placidly smiling Angel of Lousy Luck shambles across the floor, we hear a chorus of groans from everyone he passes.

But what if such a man got lucky - wouldn't that be the worst luck of all? Bernie befriends cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello), and a kind gesture pays off in good karma. Before long, she's in his gloomy apartment shaking her dice-tattooed bottom at him, and a crackly LP is playing "Luck Be A Lady Tonight." At work the next day, a love-drunk Bernie spreads good fortune, the one-armed bandits spouting silver in his wake.

Now only disaster can save him - that's the high-concept twist on which the film hangs. Nothing in The Cooler is as novel or as effective as this idea: in fact, for the most part, writer-director Wayne Kramer and co-writer Frank Hannah parade familiar Vegas tropes before our eyes, as if to give them one last spin before the party moves on. There's Bello's waitress with a rough past and desperate slim hopes; and Baldwin's thuggish charmer with his corny Rat Pack rhetoric, nostalgically evoking vague cheesy ideas of "class". The credits give us the same old neon skyline, set to a consummately smooth score by Mark Isham, pastiching every blast of Vegas brass you've ever heard.

The Cooler recycles casino-pic clichés as if they were going out of style - the point is that they are. They belong to the old world that Shelly fearfully clings to - a culture of natty-but-vicious hoodlums, aging lounge singers (Paul Sorvino in a poignantly unflattering role), hookers susceptible to being leaned on with avuncular menace. But now a young executive (Ron Livingston), whose viciousness is of the legit, corporate variety, plans to rationalise Shelly's joint along modern entertainment lines, with slick management techniques, theme rides and IMAX. The old-vs-new theme is itself more than familiar: the film ends with much the same demolition footage (perhaps the very same) that wrapped Casino, Scorsese's own Nevada Götterdämmerung.

All the clichés surely add up to a calculated attempt - certainly a fond one - to make the last casino picture. Its cast bring plenty of class to characters who conspicuously have none. A chunky, rasping Baldwin is authoritative as the ageing lion looking extinction in the eye: it shouldn't surprise us when he turns from bullish bonhomie to homicidal rage, yet each time he does, it's just as effective.

In a world of grifters and irredeemable scuzz-bags, Bernie stands as a secular saint, the martyr whose bottomless suffering allows the whole rotten system to function. Macy takes his patented gloomy persona to a new level, giving Bernie a tender core of resignation, then igniting him with lascivious cheer when he meets Natalie: he perks up like a Labrador peeling its jowls off the floor when its mistress calls walkies.

Maria Bello is equally classy as Natalie - sexy, naïve and self-knowing, a character whose redemption is that she's too small-time to become the monster that Sharon Stone played in Casino. Her sex scenes with Macy are marvellously relaxed: he glows with jackpot-winner satisfaction when she casually grabs his dick.

But The Cooler never quite decides how much it's taking us for a ride; whether it wants us to believe that Bernie truly is a walking jinx, or whether his hit-rate is based on ordinary psychological tactics. The film misses a trick in not playing up the ambivalence: the point, surely, is that Bernie, like everyone around him, is superstitious about implacable fate, which is why he gives in to it.

Without such uncertainty, The Cooler is merely a magic-realist fairy tale. With the final deus ex machina, it looks as though Kramer - a South African first-timer, incidentally, not the late MC5 guitarist - is just taking the piss, or admitting he's run out of cards. Indeed, his occasional stylistic flourishes suggest a lack of confidence rather than a true gamester's sangfroid. The Cooler is slickly enjoyable, but in the end it's a classic less-than-meets-the-eye job, an impressive bluff. Still, that probably means that as a film-maker, Kramer is a pretty good poker player.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

Comments