DVD Review of The Cooler

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/25/05


  Maria Bello is 1 of the sexiest & most interesting actresses around. She’s not a superstar, but consistently delivers the goods in films not worthy of her talents. Perhaps the only vehicle I’ve ever seen that did her talents justice is the cult tv series Nowhere Man- where she appeared in an episode as the lead character’s love interest. In The Cooler, she portrays Natalie Belisario- a Vegas cocktail waitress at the Shangri-La casino, hired by casino boss Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) to seduce the casino’s ‘cooler’- fellow hired to bring bad luck to people on hot streaks- Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) into not quitting his job at the end of a week, after paying himself out of Kaplow’s debt.

  Basically, Bello’s the only real reason to watch the film- her acting as the waitress who falls in love with Bernie is believable, given the somewhat convoluted tale. Her background of being treated like crap makes her easily fall for the luckless, but decent Bernie, thus into Shelly’s bad graces. At the Oscars this year Baldwin boasted of stealing his tough Mafioso performance from Ben Kingsley’s turn as Don Logan in Sexy Beast, & it’s true. Baldwin’s character is acting throughout, not Baldwin. There isn’t an ounce of true menace in his character, whereas Kingsley’s character exuded it from the back of his bald head.

  The Shangri-La is in the midst of ‘going legitimate’- from Mob influence to corporate influence (yes, ‘legitimate’ is thus a misnomer- deal with it!), & Shelly is under the beancounting eyes of a young corporate punk named Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston). Shelly rages at this & that, beats Natalie, & Bernie’s freeloading son & fiancée, despite being childhood friends with Bernie. He also murders an aging lounge lizard ,Buddy Stafford (Paul Sorvino), & fobs it off as an act of kindness to make way for a Harry Connick clone, by overdosing him on heroin. Still, this doesn’t make Shelly a fearsome figure, but a silly 1.

  The love story between Natalie & Bernie develops some depths- their sex scenes are comic & far more real than most Hollywood Wild Thang sessions, & Bello has no problem in revealing her beautiful, if not archetypal, body- small, pert breasts, & a nice round, meaty ass. When his son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) shows up with his girlfriend Charlene (Estella Warren), they scam Bernie of several thousand dollars by pretending she’s pregnant, then blow it at the casino. Mike’s caught cheating & Bernie has to pay off his debt. Unfortunately Hatosy & Warren are abysmal actors.

  The story, which could have been decent idf kept realistic, falls off after that scene. Instead of Bernie’s ‘cooler’ status being just a ruse the 2 old pals co-invented as a reason these 2 different men stayed pals, it suddenly is treated as real. Bernie’s love for Maria means he’s no longer a bad luck charm, just the opposite, so Shelly has to beat Natalie to convince her to leave. Of course, she doesn’t, Bernie has the predictable scene where he goes into the casino & wins enough to pay off his, his kid’s, & Natalie’s debts, as well as win a bundle himself. As the duo drive off Shelly sends a hitman after them to take him out, only to end up murdered himself, by his Mob boss, who now has to sell off all Mob interest in the casino to balance Bernie’s winnings, & the hitman killed by a drunk driver just as he’s about to off them. The contrivance is too much, & the Romantic nature of the tale too little to support such.

  There’s also a sense that the film condescends to its audience- needing to explain basic gambling phrases & set ups. Films like this get praised because they are deemed ‘real’ by critics but c’mon- real life losers like Bernie don’t nail superbabes like Bello 2 decades their junior. Nor are real people as 1 dimensional as Shelley or Bernie’s son. What passes for ‘integrity’ in the film is Shelly’s devotion to gangsterism over corporate crime. The screenplay, written by Frank Hannah, is full of logical & dramatic holes, while the direction by freshman Wayne Kramer has little in the way of style.

  As for the extras, there is a rather banal commentary track & 1 of those cable tv pieces on the anatomy of a scene. I tend to find these features even more tedious than the fellatio-sodden commentaries, because the windy explanations of why the ‘key scene’ is so key are usually ways for the director & actors to manifest why they are clueless as to their craft.

  Such is not so of Maria Bello. Although the film’s main character is Macy’s Bernie, & Baldwin got the Oscar nod, the only thing likely to stick in your mind about this mediocre film is Bello’s performance, for- unlike the other characters- hers is the only 1 which rises above its characterization. If only the film could have kept pace.

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