Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Way-Back Machine Movie Of The Month: THE COOLER (2003)

Since all my posts lately have been reviews of current movies, I’m starting this new monthly feature in which I’ll highlight a movie from the past I haven't covered before.

This first entry of this series is a movie that came out in 2003: Wayne Kramer’s THE COOLER (I originally reviewed it here).

THE COOLER isn’t the best of the genre of casino movies set in Las Vegas, but it’s one of the most memorable and touching due to an excellent invested performance by William H. Macy in the title role. Simply put, a “cooler” is someone that is so cursed with bad luck that it’s contagious, so if they show up while a player is on a winning streak – the player immediately starts losing.

Look up the term online, and nobody will confirm that while casinos have, in the past, hired shills to keep games going, the existence of coolers appears to be just a myth or an urban legend.

One of the joys of this film is how well this conceit is pulled off.

Macy’s character, Bernie Lootz, is employed by the fictional Shangri-La casino to reverse the fortunes of high-rolling gamblers just by being next to them when they play. When we first see Macy do this, wearing an over-sized suit with his patented droopy hangdog face, it’s both amusing and convincing.

He strolls through the casino, gently running his fingers along the side of a roulette table as he walks by, then brushing against the backs of a couple playing Baccarat, spreading his bad luck in swift little instances that result in choruses of disappointed ‘awws’ every time.

Alec Baldwin plays Macy’s hard-ass boss, Sheldon “Shelly” Kapow, who is old-school Vegas through and through. Baldwin rejects a young consultant’s (Ron Livingston) ideas about modernizing the Shangri-La, because he considers the Strip to now be a “Disneyland mookfest.”

What with his outlandish work as Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, as well as his suave goofball persona on Saturday Night Live and the Oscars (also those damn commercials for Capital One), it’s easy to forget how sinister the man can be. Baldwin’s “Shelly” is a great reminder of his dark side; his powerful intimidating performance garnered his only Academy Award nomination to date for Best Supporting Actor.

Another often intimidating actor, Paul Sorvino, plays the Shangri-Lai’s house lounge singer Buddy Stafford who is well aware that his spotlight has faded, and that Baldwin is lying to him about women leaving their panties on his dressing room door knob. When accused of this, Baldwin protests: “You’re saying I’m some Buddy Stafford ego pimp?” That’s that kind of spiel Baldwin spews through the whole film – he nails what’s going on by transparently denying it. Another example from a later exchange with Macy: “Jesus, Bernie. Is that what you think? That I would fuck with your happiness?” Yes, Shelly, that’s exactly what he thinks.

So yeah, Baldwin steals the show, but let’s get back to Macy. Bernie Lootz is possibly the most likable of the losers Macy has played throughout his career. He’s a far cry from the sleazy losers from films like BOOGIE NIGHTS or his recent Showtime show Shameless, and the pathetic losers from MAGNOLIA and FARGO, in that Bernie is actually a good decent guy. When Maria Bello as a Shangri-La cocktail waitress who takes a shine to him (something that at first seems more implausible than the whole “cooler” idea) calls him precisely that – “just a decent guy, trying to get back on track” – nobody can dispute that.

Macy and Bello have some explicit sex scenes that almost got the movie an NC-17 because Bello’s pubic hair can be seen, but I doubt that’s anything my readers would complain about.

Macy’s so nice that he gives his skuzzy son (Shawn Hatosy) his savings of $3,000 when the no-good lug shows up out of nowhere with a very pregnant girlfriend (Estella Warren) in tow.

That leads to the film’s most talked about scene, (Spoiler Alert!) in which Baldwin punches Warren in the stomach, revealing a pillow under her shirt - showing that the couple has been scamming Bernie the whole time. In a 2005 interview in the British magazine Uncut, Baldwin spoke about the scene: “First of all, if he’d literally punched a pregnant woman, I don’t think I would’ve done the movie. He punches a woman he knows is not really pregnant. That’s the thing about the man: he has an uncanny, elevated ability to detect fraud.”

It’s a scene that seethes with tension, most of which comes from Baldwin’s unhinged ,yet in-control-of-everything attitude. His dark sarcasm: “Break out the Champagne, everybody. Bernie’s a grandfather!” as he hands a shocked Macy the pillow, is as disturbing as it is funny. I believe it was for this scene alone that Baldwin got the Oscar nom.

Before I visited Las Vegas for the first time in 2009, I didn’t know the difference between the Strip and the Downtown area. On one of 2 commentary tracks that the DVD has, cinematographer James Whitaker speaking about the opening montage of aerial footage of Vegas landmarks at night points out: “It’s a great progression from upscale Las Vegas, then, as you’ll see in a second, we move into the Downtown portion where the film takes place.”

Obviously, the 4.2 mile Strip is the upscale Las Vegas, while the Downtown is the seedier area where all the main action used to be – the original gambling district. As I saw in 2009, the Downtown still looks like it did in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER or just about any other old Vegas movie or TV show. Incidentally, several of the hotels featured in the opening, including the Aladdin and the Sands) have since been demolished. 

It’s this old-school Vegas that Baldwin is trying to preserve with the Shangri-La, but that Macy and Bello don’t care about. They’ve found love, they don’t have to romanticize a dying ideal – they have actual romance, and that’s something Baldwin can’t stand.

Because of Bello’s love, Macy no longer functions as a cooler. His luck has changed and suddenly everyone around him is winning at all the casino games in exaggerated displays of cheers, hugs, and dancing in showers of coins. That’s another thing that Baldwin can’t stand.

It’s going to take a craps table climax for Macy to settle up with Baldwin, and leave the damn town that’s been dragging him down. Sure, it’s a big winning game ending is a sports movie cliché but here it feels earned.

THE COOLER is far from perfect. A scene in which a mafia boss Arthur J. Nascarella nearly beats to death a backwards baseball hat wearing dickhead tourist on the casino floor has a forced GOODFELLAS-feel to it, and gag shots like the one below are maybe a little too obvious.

Also Ellen Greene (who appeared in one of my favorite films TALK RADIO with Baldwin back in '88) is only around to pour coffee for Macy.

These flaws aside, THE COOLER holds up quite nicely. This movie initially seems to be questioning whether you can really tell good luck from bad luck in the long run, but it's more interested in lending a loser a hand.

It so wants Macy to win that it makes some convoluted concessions for that outcome, yet because I wanted that too, I could accept them because, like just about everything else here, they were amusing enough to be convincing.

More later...

1 comment:

LitFilmScholar2B said...

Great to this sleeper getting covered. Awesome flick -- need to watch it again. Thanks.