The Cooler
a film by Wayne Kramer
written by Wayne Kramer and Frank Hannah

The third independent feature film from Wayne Kramer (his earlier films have not received theatrical distribution) combines magical realism and an almost noir feel to produce a modern fairy-tale that is also a metaphorical commentary on life in the United States in the first decade of the 21st Century. But it is not some Disneyfied "feel-good" fairy tale. The Cooler retains many of the dark and dangerous aspects of ancient stories retailed by the Brothers Grimm.

Kramer, who also wrote the screenplay with first-timer Frank Hannah, takes a daring and unusual approach to a variation of a fairly familiar story, and has created a film that is, intentionally or inadvertently, an interesting examination of the malaise that currently infects the United States.

The setting is Las Vegas. That in itself injects an aura of the mythological - since Las Vegas is in many ways an "imaginary" city - created in the desert out of whole cloth by developers for no other reason than to lure tourists there and relieve them of their money. It may be fair to say that this fictional version of Las Vegas and the values it represents embody everything that is worst about the US.

First, there is the superficiality. The Las Vegas monuments - "pyramids" and "temples" - were built to be demolished after a few decades, to make way for the next "wave" of construction. The "elegance" of the city is not in real depth of quality, but in its highly polished, narcissisticly-reflective surface, its endless strips of bright neon, which revert to the reality of dull glass tubes with the flick of a switch. The "splendor" of its shows depends on artificial stage effects, make-up, costumes, lighting, and not least of all on the frequently inebriated state of the audience, to make its impression.

Then, there is the materialism. There is the ever-increasing size and blinding brightness of the "packages" in which Las Vegas' delights are presented. There is the emphasis on "things," be those things hotel suites, fountains, clothes, cars, escorts, and the sine qua non, bankrolls - to the exclusion of everything else. There is the idea that the "easy money" that "breaking the bank" in Vegas represents equates to "freedom" or "power" or "accomplishment;" that the acquisition of things (and their stand-in, money) makes a "nobody" a "somebody."

There is the violence - which has become an increasingly accepted part of the American way of life. It is the threat which - rightly or wrongly - is associated in the popular mind with crossing the mythical "bosses" of Las Vegas. It is evident in the behavior of our criminals and the police who deal with them. It is pervasive in our "entertainment" in forms as varied as video games, television drama, films, reality television and music. Recently it has become a central feature of American foreign policy.

There is the lack of any moral standards - the idea that "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." It is a self-contained world, apart from any larger context, where all the traditional rules of behavior can be bent or broken by those with the wealth, connections or cunning to get away with it. Like the US in its "unilateralist" posture, (or Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky) Las Vegas seeks to transcend universal standards of behavior and allow "power" and the ability to evade responsibility be the arbiters of what is "acceptable." Thus prostitution and gambling (for instance) - aberrant behaviors in the rest of America - are considered colorful parts of the Las Vegas scene.

Into this fairy-tale world which Kramer creates out of the myth of Las Vegas he introduces a "holy fool" in the character a Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) - a man so unlucky that his bad luck is contagious, whose job is to protect the Casino's profits by infecting lucky gamblers and turning their good fortune bad. While some characters in the film express doubts about the rational possibility of such a power, it is clear that within the cosmology of the film the central characters - Lootz and his boss Shelly (Alec Baldwin) - have absolute confidence in it.

The challenge to the established balance comes from Bernie's desire to reclaim an authentic, independent life for himself. This aspiration is reinforced by his blossoming relationship with waitress Natalie (Maria Bello) who works in the same casino (aptly named the Golden Shangri-La). This combination of forces - the dual quest for love and identity - creates havoc with the carefully and painfully maintained illusion of "Las Vegas" and precipitates the crises around which the film revolves.

Bernie is the innocent American everyman, the wide-eyed, good-hearted naif, who believes in fair-play, love and family. He is loyal to a fault and although he sometimes may act badly, he recognizes his responsibility to make his mistakes good. He's not such a great departure from Chaplin's Little Tramp or Jimmy Stewart's "Aw, shucks" Country Boy. In Las Vegas - although he has made a sort of life for himself there, with his job, his relationship with Shelly, his rented motel room and his record collection - he is a fish out of water.

Does Kramer intend his story to represent the struggle between native American optimism and idealism and its corruption by violence, materialism, superficiality and moral directionlessness? The mythic theme might not be intentional - it could be one of those coincidences of consciousness that Carl Jung liked to call "synchronicities." On the other hand, the theme plays out with such powerful resonance that it is hard to imagine that the correspondence isn't at least partly premeditated.

The conflicts eventually resolve - to the extent that they do - through the breakdown of the system within the world of Las Vegas itself. The old corruption is attacked and overthrown by a new corruption, and the innocents somehow manage to escape through the cracks. Against this background of the battle of the Gods, the simple everyman faces his own test of faith, courage and integrity, and through it comes to make the fateful decision in favor of life.

But the story is not quite through with its protagonist. The difficult progress toward triumph - over self and external obstacles - is threatened again on the brink of success, and only salvaged at the last moment by an event which none of the characters in the film could have imagined, and over which none of them has any control.

Horatio Alger, author of inspirational books for young adults in the late 18th Century, used to credit "pluck, luck and perseverance" as the qualities that elevated his little heroes from their lowly station to a place of prominence and success within society. It is by these same quintessentially American virtues - with a highly skewed emphasis on luck - that Bernie Lootz gains his objectives in this sometimes savagely satirical modern retelling.

The script is uneven. While the story concept is complex and evocative, there are snatches of conversation that shade over into the cliched - most notably a confrontation between Bernie and Shelly on the casino roof. With better editing of the dialogue, this could have been a less heavy-handed and therefore even more successful film.

There is some brief, repulsively graphic violence in three of the scenes in this film. Whether it was necessary to the work that it be so is open to debate, but in this case, in spite of my general aversion to such depictions, I think there is some justification for their inclusion. The shocking brutality adds a painful edge to what might otherwise have settled into a much gentler - and less honest - satire.

Kramer's inexperience as a director and his lack of budget also shows in the general look of the film. There are a number of shots that are just poorly lit - clearly not for effect, because their look doesn't contribute in any way to the atmosphere of the scenes - in fact it's a distraction. There is dialogue that is poorly recorded and was never looped, leaving some of the intentions of the characters unnecessarily mysterious. But these faults are relatively minor, and certainly help to give the film a rough "indie" feel - very appropriate to the film's the off-beat approach to theme and development - that a treatment with better production values might have undermined.

The director receives a lot of help from his cast. William H. Macy - long recognized as one of the finest character actors in Hollywood - gets a chance to carry this film, and he does it with great energy and honesty. Macy's acting has always been the diametric opposite of the hammy "movie star" turns we often see in film drama - and here he allows the subtle changes of his highly mobile and expressive face and of his body language to convey the character's struggles, giving the audience credit for being able to follow the emotional trail without resorting to the obvious and exaggerated.

Macy is at his best showing the complexity and paradox of the character - the interweaving of courage and fear, of integrity and addiction to self-serving illusions, of open-heartedness and suspicion - that are so frankly human. He has a real filed for exploring the interplay of these kind of inherent contradictions in this character and this film, and he takes advantage of it without straying over into self-indulgent scenery chewing.

Alec Baldwin gives one of the best performances of his checkered career as the over-the-hill mobster and casino manager Shelly Kaplow. Against the relatively deadpan affect Macy projects through most of the film Baldwin's unpredictability and explosiveness creates an emotional Mutt and Jeff contrast that manages to be believable and sympathetic in spite of how much one may dislike Bernie for his self-imposed spinelessness and Shelly for his ruthlessness and casual cruelty. It is really the confrontation between these two characters, which leads for each of them to the emergence of a new sense of identity - that is the heart of the film - and they handle it with sensitivity and balance.

Maria Bello as Natalie is much more than simply "the Girl," which is a credit to the scriptwriting team as well as the actress. Her character has depth and complexity, and rather than being simply a catalyst for Bernie's transformation, she is an active and conscious participant in it, as changer, and as changed herself. The breadth of their relationship - which is sort of a subplot, despite one aspect of it being central to the plot - gives an added dimension to the film.

Bello creates a whole series of edges for Natalie that cut through all the possible cliches that swirl around the usual use of a "love interest" in a film with such a theme. She brings a "feminine," receptive energy to life in Bernie that then resonates in Shelly and is, arguably the real root cause of the transformation of their relationship and of their lives.

Paul Sorvino has a wonderful cameo as a fading Vegas Lounge singer that again manages to sidestep and transcend the expected formulas. Shawn Hatosy is effectively repulsive as Bernie's long-lost son - a painful but necessary reminder that one can't go backwards in life. Ron Livingston and Joey Fatone are convincing as the slick representatives of the "new faces of evil" who want to transform the Golden Shangri-La into newer, shinier and more duplicitous incarnation.

The Cooler is a little rough around the edges - but at the center is an meaningful exploration of the human predicament, made more penetrating and substantial by some very fine acting. Kramer and his cast and crew have put together an eminently watchable film that should presage a productive future for this new film-maker.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z