The Cooler is director Wayne Kramer’s first film. And one that would be almost impossible to make now for a variety of reasons. It stars William H. Macy as Bernie Lootz, in the fictional role of ‘cooler’: a casino operative who pretends to be a player and shows up to bring down a player who’s on a winning streak. Macy was the perfect choice (Kelsey Grammar was in the frame for the role at one point, but it’s hard to imagine that). He works in an old-fashioned Vegas casino, and in many ways it’s a film about old Vegas and the new, Disneyfied Vegas—a conflict between two fabrications, in other words.
One of the hostesses Shelly, played by Maria Bello, starts to fall for Macy, and his luck starts to change. And his job, that’s a problem. Then his son arrives with a girlfriend who appears to be pregnant, making everything more complicated. Lootz is also planning to retire from being a cooler by the end of the week.
Macy is one of the best actors ever, and has played a lot of ‘lovable loser’ roles, from Fargo and Boogie Nights on forward. Having moved into bigger studio films at this point, he wasn’t easy for the first-time director to get, even though the role plays to all of his strengths. He turns in a brilliant performance, with the right sad-sack physicality, and it’s a shame that it was passed over by the Oscars.
Bello had previously mostly been known for her work on E.R., and is great as Natalie, the hostess who falls in love with a complete loser. The part kick-started her film career. There’s a happy ending to the fairy-tale love story as well.
The performance that got the most acclaim was Alec Baldwin as the casino boss, Shelley. At that time Baldwin was not in a good place in his career. He’d had years of being the handsome young lead, then went through a complicated divorce and needed to get to work. It resulted in several difficult years while he tried to find his way back to the screen as a solid character actor and this is one of the first of those roles. Baldwin’s character is the kind of guy who can drop into extreme violence at the drop of a hat, and gets the bigger, nastier scenes.
Kramer had moved to the US from South Africa, and had been struggling to get anything made in Hollywood for a decade, The Cooler was a film that no one wanted him to direct, also there was interest in buying the script he co-wrote but he stuck to his guns and eventually directed the film. Kramer drew on everything he had learned from his work on other projects, and with cinematographer Jim Whittaker and editor Arthur Coburn he was able to tell the story with some really beautiful cinematography. It’s a really tightly edited film, and got some Oscar buzz as well as doing OK at the box office. It should have been an indie crossover smash, but it’s a film that has really taken off on DVD. It’s an endlessly rewatchable movie, with three actors at the top of their game and a great supporting cast.
However, a half-second view of Bello’s pubic hair meant that the MPAA slapped it with an NC-17, a huge double-standard given what level of violence gets by with an R. The director tried to fight it but lost on appeal, and had to go with an alternative take to get an R-rated version into the theatres. It’s one of the examples that has pushed the MPAA to liberalise its rating standards.
This marks the film’s first Blu-Ray release. There’s been some debate over the transfer, and it could be that the master they were given to use for the transfer was older, and 101 Films didn’t have the budget for 4K transfer, which would have been the director’s preference. It leaves the film looking a little dated, and doesn’t completely properly reflect the way Kramer shot it. I found it extremely watchable despite the hit-and-miss transfer. If it turns out that there is an underlying issue, I’m sure it will be fixed, but it’s far from the disaster that some people have been talking about on forums.
The disc includes a new documentary about the film, which is actually longer than The Cooler itself, and includes interviews with pretty much everyone involved other than Bello. It’s one of the best making-of features on a Blu-Ray in recent years. Two commentary tracks—one with Kramer and the composer Mark Isham and one with Kramer and the cinematographer; the old Sundance Channel “Anatomy of a Scene” featurette, which dissects the filmmaking process; some of Kramer’s storyboards (unlike a lot of filmmakers, Kramer storyboards every shot himself, which helps him get everything he needs on a small budget—they’re well worth checking out if you’re a young filmmaker); about 14 minutes of deleted scenes, the trailer, and a promo film. The set also includes a DVD copy and a booklet with two essays, one by Kramer and one on the Hollywood view of Vegas by Scott Harrison.