Plot: What’s it about?
While watching “The Cooler”, I was reminded of how good of an actor William H. Macy is. Macy is best-known for playing loveable losers like he played in “Fargo”, “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” to name a few. He locks horns with Alec Baldwin in his role here (Baldwin was nominated for an Academy Award for his role but lost to Tim Robbins in “Mystic River”) and the two hit it off superbly. “The Cooler” is the essential independent movie, though we have recognized stars in Baldwin, Macy and Maria Bello; the tone, look and feel of the movie all scream “low budget independent movie”. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, as these lower key movies are often better than the mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters that make all the money. Writer/Director Wayne Kramer shot this movie in 21 days and though that might seem a bit rushed, it doesn’t feel like it. When you deal with down and out characters, particularly in Las Vegas, one can’t help but be reminded of “Leaving Las Vegas”. That movie brought Nicholas Cage and Oscar win and a nomination for Elisabeth Shue. Down and out? Yes. Depressing? Yes. But what “The Cooler” offers is great storytelling, interesting characters and a solid movie.
Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) works as a “cooler” for the Shangri-La, an “old school” casino nestled off the strip in Las Vegas. The glitz and glam of the billion dollar hotels has all but ruined the smaller casinos, but Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) still believes in doing things the old-fashioned way. He employs Bernie as a cooler because his luck is so bad, it literally rubs off on those around him (a good thing if those people are gambling in your casino). He’s got a hot-shot executive with plans to revolutionize the Shangri-La into something that it isn’t – a theme-oriented casino with no soul. Shelly has no interest in this and he’s distraught by the news that Bernie will be leaving in just under a week. You see, Bernie is working off his debt to Shelly as the cooler and that debt is nearly paid. He plans to leave and start a new life, presumably one that doesn’t involve a casino. Shelly knows that with Bernie leaving, business won’t be a good. So the question is asked: how to keep Bernie in the employment of the Shangri-La? This problem is compounded when Bernie starts seeing a cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello). Bernie’s luck begins to change when he falls in love with her, but will Shelly allow the romance to continue?
“The Cooler” was a very enjoyable film, low-budget and melancholy in tone; I found the characters appealing and interesting. William H. Macy delivers yet another great performance and Alec Baldwin, the Hollywood star that he is, was finally recognized for his talents with an Academy Award nomination. Though I expected to see Tim Robbins accepting the Oscar (and he did), I would have loved to see Baldwin up there as well. He’s a villain, yet somehow we can see his point of view on things. He doesn’t have many redeemable qualities and ultimately I felt sorry for his character. Maria Bello holds her own with these two just the same, her performance is just as strong as Macy and Baldwin’s. The movie was in and out of theaters pretty fast, but hopefully it will find new life on DVD. An interesting story, this has somewhat of a timeless look and feel to it. I can imagine this movie being made twenty years ago and being just as good. Though the underlying theme is about love (what isn’t), I think this independent film will cater to much wider audiences. To see Macy doing what he’s good at and Baldwin at his best (though a great, and underrated comic actor as well), be sure to check this out.
Video: How does it look?
This is proof that not everything you see on a box, even a DVD box, isn’t always correct. The back of the box claims that the aspect ratio is 1.85:1 and this is a misprint. I remember thinking that it was much wider when I saw it in the theater and it is indeed shown in a 2.35:1 anamorphic image. That being said, I was pretty impressed with how this appeared on the screen. The tone of the movie is down and somber and that’s reflected in many of the scenes. However, when Bernie begins to change, his clothes and the atmosphere around him does as well. This is well-represented in the transfer and something that is so subtle that most people will miss it. There’s no edge enhancement to speak of and though the majority of the movie is dark, the colors don’t suffer too much. Fleshtones appear to be natural, though a number of the scenes appear to be washed out (not a fault of the transfer, this is how it was intended). All in all, a great transfer and reproduced well on disc.
Audio: How does it sound?
As low key as the movie is, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is as we might expect – just that. Dialogue is at the heart of the soundtrack and it’s clean and natural here. There are some surround effects to speak of, but nothing that stands out too much. The rest of the “action” takes place in the front channels, which handle Mark Isham’s score. There’s nothing that stands out too terribly much here, we get what we expect and nothing else. Isham’s score is also available as a separate channel on the DVD, a feature that is used less and less these days…
Supplements: What are the extras?
“The Cooler” comes to us as a single-disc DVD and sports a pair of audio commentaries. Sadly, both of these don’t contain any of the movie’s stars, but Wayne Kramer is informative on both. We learn a lot about the shoot and how the production team took a casino and turned it into their set. Kramer seems happy with his work here and though both tracks have some dull spots, fans of the movie will find both tracks an interesting listen. The Sundance Channel has a feature of “Anatomy of a Scene” in which a few scenes are shown. We learn of the costume design, the location and lighting (they found a casino being remodeled and had unlimited access to it while they shot) and the story as well. The Sundance Channel takes a fresh look at things and doesn’t give us what so many other featurettes do – useless information. There are some storyboards to two scenes which shows the finished scene and the storyboards that accompany it. I’ve never had much use for this kind of feature, but if you like this sort of thing then it’s there. Already mentioned was Mark Isham’s isolated score. “The Cooler” was a great and underrated movie. I’m glad it got some recognition from the “Academy” and the Golden Globes as well. Fans of independent film will love it and even non-fans should give this one a look.