Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 01, 2004 10:44 am 
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A nerd's triumph fizzles

William H. Macy has become a recurrent figure in recent American movies. The best ones he’s had a chance to be in are probably the Coen brothers’ Fargo and P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia (in all three of which he was brilliantly used), but he works so regularly he can pop up in something like Wag the Dog or Pleasantville, even Jurassic Park III or Air Force One. Macy is a standard-issue nerd, with a classic, neutral, sad-sack face that by now has become a little too familiar. He’s presentable but uninteresting, unsexy to the max. You have two choices: type-cast him, or cast him against type. Either way, you've got the same Macy.

The Cooler has gutsy performances by Macy, Maria Bello and (most notably) Alec Baldwin, but it doesn’t quite make sense. The screenplay is not only corny and incoherent in places but virtually destroyed by a completely silly ending.

A “cooler,” we’re told, is a guy whose luck’s so bad his mere presence at a gaming table can stanch an unwanted winning streak. Baldwin hires Bello to become lonely guy Macy’s sex partner to keep him on at the old fashioned Vegas club he manages, the Shangri-La. He’s had the sad sack working as a cooler for five years while paying off a debt. Now that the debt is paid off Macy’s character wants to leave. But Baldwin’s trick backfires. The couple fall in love, Macy’s bad luck vanishes, and his useful jinx goes dead. All this is hard to buy into, but the gambling world after all is obviously a world of fantasy and myth. Or it was: the movie draws distinctions between the old casino life and the more scientific, cold-blooded (and family oriented!) Vegas business of today. The trouble with this is that casinos were always cold-blooded bloodsuckers. What’s new?

The movie sets up various dichotomies: Macy’s character is nerdy/sincere, Bello of course is a whore with heart of gold – a whore who’s really a nice girl; Baldwin is a ruthless cold bastard who yet believes in “old” casino values: his Mafia overlords bring in a slick “Harvard” business school guy to replace him.

The Cooler also brings in Macy’s slimy son (a wonderfully repulsive Shawn Hatosy), who works a scan on him and then on the casino using a fake-pregnant wife. When the son’s caught, the Harvard kid wants to turn him over to the law. This isn’t Baldwin’s way. He wants to smash the nasty young man’s kneecaps as he once smashed one of Macy’s. Baldwin also brutally beats up Bello when she admits she’s in love with Macy. Among other flaws, this movie is far too violent for a romance or a character study. It never quite decides what genre it’s bending.

Finally Macy and Bello decide to run away and Macy wins something like $150,000 – and Baldwin lets him leave with it. The finale is a preposterous sequence of bad luck cancelled out by good. By this time the movie is already at least 25 minutes too long.

The whole idea of the nerdy hero, the bad luck guy who finds love, is irredeemably corny; it might have worked if the movie was clearly ironic or for that matter had any kind of consistent tone. The sex scenes between Bello and Macy are embarrassing, partly because Macy is just a pawn in the whole tale. His fortunes may shift, but he remains a nerd in his own and everybody else’s eyes. This shows Macy’s essential limitations as an actor. It’s pushing too hard to make him a main character: for all his professionalism there’s really no “there” there. His supremely goofy appearance attracts a degree of attention that the personality never ultimately justifies. One can’t help thinking of the relatively enormous complexity of Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas, spurred by a plot that goes all the way into tragedy and Nick Cage’s fearless risk-taking. As an actor Cage can always skirt the edges between nerd and action hero. Maybe he’s a tabula rasa, a blank slate: but he begins with an energy, a neediness, a passion, an anguish that Macy hasn’t got to give.

No doubt of the fact that the currently underused Alec Baldwin is great here; too bad he’s not playing this role in a better movie, where his character’s mixture of sadism and passionate longing for old “values” might lead to a troublingly complex portrait.

There’s some decent acting in this movie. Besides committed work by Macy, Bello, Baldwin, and Hatosy, Paul Sorvino has a nice turn as an over-the-hill, addict lounge singer.But you have to conclude that the “character study” of Macy, if that’s what it is, really spoils what might have been an intriguing, noirish casino power struggle. The movie should have ended with some kind of huge showdown or scam, or better yet a failed scam, like the one in Melville’s Bob le Flambeur. Macy just doesn’t generate enough romance or sex appeal. Sure, a nerdy guy could be or become sexy, but the filmmakers don’t have that kind of courage or originality. It doesn’t seem to occur to them to question or ironically undermine the idea of defining life exclusively in terms of good luck and bad luck. “Luck be a lady” is such a boring theme. This movie was a triumph at Sundance. They must have been desperate.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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