Friday, January 02, 2004

REVIEW: The Cooler

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

In his "Ringworld" novels, science-fiction author Larry Niven posited the character of Teela Brown, who was born and bred to be lucky. Her ancestors had won the right to conceive in a lottery going back three generations, and she'd never been less than fortunate, never having so much as stubbed her toe. Like Gladstone Gander in Walt Disney's Duck comics, she was lucky as a condition of her being. Niven claimed that she had the ultimate psi power - author control.

There is a great deal of appeal to a writer in the idea that luck is a function of some universal force as opposed to what it really is - chance. Once you allow luck to be something quantifiable, and indeed predictable in a definite, as opposed to probability-based, way, you can cease worrying about whether or not people will believe in how your characters are affected by outside actions. Their luck becomes a part of their environment.

It's tricky, though. Intacto, for instance, built a framework of rules and methods by which this "luck" worked, but never put the idea to terribly interesting use. The Cooler, on the other hand, asks the audience to take its title character's bad luck as a given, but never makes this fantasy element really fit into its gritty millieu.

William H. Macy's Bernie Lootz is unlucky, and he plays his role in Vegas by making those around him unlucky, in the service of his casino-boss "friend" Shelly (Alec Baldwin). When a pretty waitress (Maria Bello) takes an interest in him, his luck changes with his attitude, and Shelly attempts to return things to normal via extreme measures.

But the whole idea's pretty silly, isn't it? The movie presents Bernie's bad luck as a key to keeping the casino in business, but the idea that casinos actually depend on luck is childish. Casinos operate and thrive because they understand probability better than their customers. Shelly himself is a silly caricature, a superstitious thug who romanticizes thuggery. His downfall is not only inevitable, but given the time-frame of the movie, long overdue.

Now, Baldwin, Bello, and Macy all give decent performances - there's not really a bad bit of character acting to be found; even Ron Livingston's astounding un-charisma is well-utilized (and Estella Warren apparently can act as opposed to just looking good). But they're all in service of such silly ideas as to make The Cooler a well-acted goofy movie.

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