King Midas in Reverse

The Cooler

This week’s Grammys reminded me how moronic major American pop-culture awards can be, and Alec Baldwin’s Oscar nomination for The Cooler cinches it.

Baldwin isn’t bad in the movie, directed and co-written by Wayne Kramer, but he’s not any good, either, and the film as a whole is terrible. The best thing I can say about Baldwin is that he’s the only performer who doesn’t look completely adrift in this disaster. If the Academy Awards measure a performer’s work relative to everybody else in a picture, then give Baldwin the statuette. Otherwise, his nomination is a joke.

Baldwin plays Shelly Kaplow, an old-school casino boss in Las Vegas, and he basically channels Robert De Niro in sleep-acting mode — disingenuously charming, dripping with menace, casually violent. You’ve seen this performance a dozen times if you’ve seen it once, and there’s still nothing interesting about it.

Shelly is being pressured by corporate types to bring the Shangri-La casino into the 21st Century. They want him to get rid of the tired Sinatra wannabe and replace him with someone young and fresh; they want him to change his wallpaper and add music with subliminal “lose” messages; they want roller coasters; and they want him to dump his reliable “cooler,” Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy).

Bernie is the personification of bad luck, King Midas in reverse. He merely shows up at a table and a winning streak shrivels up and dies. The rotten luck extends to his own life. He got in debt so deep that Shelly busted his knee and forced him into servitude at the casino.

Bernie’s way of coping with his luck is to divorce himself from the rest of humanity. He lives alone in a seedy motel and has no friends; he’s afraid that intimacies with other people will make his bad fortune rub off on them.

But Bernie is almost out from under his obligation to Shelly, and he’s promising to leave Las Vegas. Enter a waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello), who re-pays Bernie’s kindness with some romantic interest. They fall in love, Bernie’s luck seems to change, and then everything gets complicated.

In outline and retrospect, the plot — beyond what I’ve described above — actually borders on clever. But the script by Kramer and Frank Hannah is probably two drafts away from capitalizing on that promise.

The primary problem is tone. The movie tries to keep the hard, gritty texture of a crime movie while also being a feel-good fantasy about love. The Cooler loses credibility on both; it’s too silly, unlikely, and cheesy to be taken seriously, and the darkness and violence drag down the fantastic elements.

It could have worked, but getting those tones to become one requires a writer and director with the confidence and skills to sweep an audience along. Kramer is not that person.

To start with, the screenwriting is lazy. Kramer suggests (one assumes accidentally) that Shelly at one point acquires x-ray vision, and I had to groan at the way the writer/director approached this particular storytelling challenge: He threw up his hands.

But that’s just a symptom of a larger problem, which is that nothing works in the movie.

The characters serve the plot rather than the story coming from them, and throughout The Cooler, you can see the awkward ways the plot is manipulated to achieve the filmmaker’s ends. The appearance of Bernie’s son is a wasted opportunity for resonance; it’s used to set up later events and barely even pauses to consider the effect the situation might have on fragile Bernie.

While the movie often speeds past potentially interesting moments, it more frequently bashes you over the head to make sure you got something. Kramer’s signifiers — from Bernie’s wardrobe to spilled salt to the absence or presence of cream to a malfunctioning neon sign — are so heavy-handed that they made me wince.

The dialogue, particularly in conversations between Bernie and Natalie, is equally painful, and the much-discussed sex scenes, while refreshing in their frankness, really don’t serve any narrative purpose beyond showing Bill Macy’s ass and scrotum. (We’re teased with word of his “fantastic cock,” but alas, it doesn’t make an appearance.)

And, crucially, Macy falls down in The Cooler. Fundamentally, I didn’t buy the movie because I never bought the relationship between Bernie and Natalie, and I didn’t buy that because I didn’t buy Macy. Bernie might seem similar to the born-to-lose characters that Macy played so well in Fargo and Magnolia, and he should be fascinating and rich, conflicted between guilt (I just cost somebody $50,000), self-pity (Why me?), dread (What will I fuck up next?), power (I can ruin you), and satisfaction (I do my job well). But Macy plays it placid, and you get more character detail from Bernie’s clothing (orange equals happy equals good luck!) than from the acting.

That falls on Macy, but he’s hardly alone in looking lost in Kramer’s mess. Baldwin is the only one who salvages his dignity in this movie, and while that’s quite an accomplishment, it’s not Oscar-worthy.

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