A movie in love with its own atmosphere, "The Cooler" slides smoothly between the tables, soaks in the neon and proceeds with style and confidence. The film - the debut of director Wayne Kramer - stars William H. Macy ("Fargo") as Bernie Lootz, a guy whose luck is so terrible that his bad luck seems to infect those around him. Hired as a "cooler" at a Vegas casino that's seen better days, all Bernie really needs to do is step into a game and any sort of run the players were having will come to a cold stop.
Love, however, comes in the form of Natalie (Maria Bello), a waitress that Bernie has always taken a liking to. As the two get to know each other better, their relationship blossoms and soon enough, Bernie gets lucky. This becomes deeply troubling to casino owner Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), a guy who prefers to run operations in an old-school manner. Complications come in the form of Bernie's son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) and his pregnant girlfriend (Estella Warren), who eventually find themselves crossing paths with Shelly. Shelly also has to contend with investors who constantly want to modernize the place.
The real core of the picture is the romantic relationship between Bernie and Natalie, and it works surprisingly well. This is really one of the most caring, convincing romances that I've seen on-screen in a while and both performers really nail their parts. While Macy's been better in other films, this is really one of the finest performances that I've seen from Maria Bello - she really gives a heartbreaking performance as Natalie. Alec Baldwin gives a fine, menacing and layered performance as Kaplow, although I've seen better and similar performances from the actor, who was excellent playing against James Caan recently on an episode of TV's "Las Vegas".
While "The Cooler"'s core romance is wonderfully portrayed, there are still a few mis-steps. The whole subplot with Bernie's son and his girlfriend appears to be a large part of the middle of the picture, then both characters suddenly disappear. Some of the supporting characters are interesting, too, and could have been developed more. Overall though, I really enjoyed "The Cooler"; the performances are excellent, the look of the film is marvelous and the picture is a well-done noir-ish romance, well-combined with drama about Vegas and the brisk, sometimes unpleasant winds of change.
Brief cuts were made to the sex scenes in the film to avoid an NC-17. The DVD only includes the R-rated cut.
VIDEO: "The Cooler" is presented by Lion's Gate in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is certainly one of the finer efforts I've seen recently from the studio. Sharpness and detail are superb, and the picture quality does justice to the film's expert use of shadows and light in the interior scenes.
If anything, the only real issue with the presentation was the appearance of some minor, but noticable compression artifacts. Edge enhancement wasn't seen, and the print looked quite good. Colors appeared well-saturated and rich, with no smearing or other faults visible.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is largely a front-heavy presentation, with little in the way of surround use. While the rear speakers do pop in for a couple of brief effects and some light musical reinforcement, they're silent for most of the picture. Mark Isham's jazz score was nicely spread across the front speakers, but I couldn't help but feel that dialogue seemed noticably a little bit low in volume.
EXTRAS: The DVD includes two commentaries: one by Commentary by director/co-writer Wayne Kramer, co-writer Frank Hannah, and cinematogeher Jim Whitaker, the other by Commentary by director/co-writer Wayne Kramer and composer Mark Isham.
The DVD also offers Mark Isham's isolated score in Dolby Digital 5.1, the 21-minute Sundance Channel "Anatomy of a Scene" documentary, storyboard/scene comparisons for "The Cooler Scene" and "The Heater Scene" and trailers hidden under the Lion's Gate logo on the main menu.
Final Thoughts: "The Cooler" makes a couple of mis-steps, but the lead performances are terrific, the film looks fantastic and it has great atmosphere. Artisan's DVD offers very good image quality, fine sound and a few solid supplements. Recommended as at least a rental.