Quentin Tarantino caused a stir at Cannes this year when he claimed that the biggest problem for British film was our failure to retain stars, arguing: “At the end of the day people go to see films to see stars.”
I was reminded of this while watching The Cooler, as it isn’t a particularly impressive film, but is nonetheless watchable thanks to a handful of genuine star performances, led by the wonderful William H Macy.
Macy plays Bernie, a “cooler” hired by Alec Baldwin’s Las Vegas casino boss to hang around the tables and bring bad luck to anyone in range. How does he do it? Not through any tricks or deception. Bernie is simply one of life’s losers, and his presence alone is enough to depress a table.
Early on, the film has a lot of fun exploring the implications of being the world’s biggest loser, like when Bernie finds there’s no cream for his coffee: “It du’nt matter,” he sighs, resigned to a life without cream. He has sex with a cocktail waitress, who reassures him afterwards: “Don’t worry, I’ve had worse.”
Surprisingly though, she’s interested in Bernie, and he starts to feel happy. In any other life, this would be good news, but for Bernie it’s disastrous as his new-found luck is rubbing off on the punters, and costing the casino. Baldwin has no choice, and has to put an end to the relationship.
The films opens as a black comedy, relishing the humiliations it heaps on Bernie. Gradually though, it becomes more dramatic, with seedy sub-plots that aim for the detail of David Mamet, alongside the sweeping cultural panorama of Casino. This broadening of tone doesn’t quite work, as many of the scenes are too dark and serious for black comedy, so the sub-plots feel like they belong to a different film.
Still, the stars are spectacular. Macy is so good at these downtrodden everymen because he plays them completely straight, allowing the comedy to come naturally from the material. Alec Baldwin reprises his role in Enemy Of The State as a weary tyrant who is convinced he is acting for a greater good. Maria Bello is convincingly brittle as the failed showgirl turned waitress, and we’re even treated to Paul Sorvino singing (of which more later this summer in Mambo Italiano).
The film’s ending is evidence of its confused tone, with echoes of films as diverse as Goodfellas, Thelma And Louise, and Magnolia. Still, you’ll have had your money’s worth by then, thanks to a truly stellar cast.