Imaginative Starts Before Things Fall Apart; "The Cooler" and "Triplets of Belleville"
by Peter Brunette
Two new offerings this week feature innovative films that don't quite live up to their imaginative potential. Both start brilliantly and remain engaging for a surprisingly long time; both, however, eventually fall apart trying to figure out what to do next. The first, "The Cooler," is structured around a delightfully fresh premise: Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is so unlucky that he is employed by Las Vegas casino owner Shelly Kaplow (played by Alec Baldwin) to "cool" the luck of any unsuspecting gambler who seems about to break the bank. The delicacies of "The Triplets of Belleville," on the other hand, are more visual and aural. An animated film from France, it sports a pictorial mode to die for. (In fact, the word "animated" seems to impoverish it; it's more like a fabulous painting, unspecifiable in period, that moves and changes.) Disappointingly, and perhaps inevitably, "Triplets" ultimately becomes little more than a plot-starved chase movie that will fail to hold most viewers' interest over its 80-minute running time.
"The Cooler" ratifies our culture's continuing fascination with Las Vegas, and for most viewers, the film's locale will not be its most riveting feature. What's great about it, though, is that the characters and the basic situation, at least at first, are so freshly conceived. Throughout the initial half of the film, in fact, incident and dialogue are so edgy and consistently surprising that it's clear we're in the presence of what might be called a "writerly" movie. Thus, it comes as no surprise to learn that first-time director Wayne Kramer earned his movie chops writing screenplays. Alec Baldwin is superbly energetic as the ruthless casino operator and the ever schlumpy Macy is homely enough to bring a sense of cinéma vérité to his innovative, canny mix of nerd and con man.
But we already knew about these two guys. The great revelation in the film is Maria Bello, who plays Natalie, a down-on-her-luck cocktail waitress who falls for Bernie. He is so head-over-heels happy over his good fortune that he gains confidence and in the process loses his reverse Midas touch, making him poison to Shelly. A high point of the film is a nervous, almost excruciating first-time sex scene between Bernie and Natalie, which we (and he) fear throughout that the loser will screw up.
So far so good. Alas, writer-director Kramer seems suddenly to lose confidence in the brilliant basic situation he's created and introduces some over-the-top violent episodes (primarily in the person of Bernie's slimey estranged son) that quickly drive the film over a cliff. The most grievous effect is to introduce a string of slips in character motivation that make the film's multiple narrative twists and turns increasingly improbable. Unlike Tarantino's films, this doesn't seem to be comic-book violence at all, and the effect is to increasingly derail whatever consistency of tone (albeit a bizarre one) that the film has been at pains to establish.
The problem with "Triplets" isn't too much incident, but too little. It's a wonderfully observed little vignette which would have made a landmark short, but, given the fact that it's both an animated film and virtually without dialogue, it just can't sustain the running length of a feature. Admittedly, the way in which it cinematically invents itself, seemingly right before your eyes, is often enormously entertaining. We have never seen anything like this before in an animated film and, as a film critic friend pointed out to me, at the very least it serves as an important antidote to the excessive praise that a middling cartoon like "Finding Nemo" has received.
Furthermore, director Sylvain Chomet, a comic-book artist in an earlier life, continually delights by drawing upon a storehouse of vaguely recalled cultural icons, which he puts together in surprising combinations. A dog barks at a passing train in a transcendent moment of haunting expressivity. Other moments of freshly imagined visual power, for example, the view of a ship on the high seas (after the ravaged surburbanscape of the first half of the film has been exhausted), accompanied by Mozart's "Kyrie Eleison," transport us to other realms. Themes of the passing of time and the sad destructiveness of "progress" are suggested, but lacking words, they cannot be developed in full.
Despite my own sense that the most interesting films being made today -- like those of Wong Kar-Wai ("Chungking Express," "In the Mood for Love") -- rely increasingly on graphic expressivity to achieve their powerful but only incompletely describable effects, rather than story, nevertheless something like "Triplets" may remind us that the most powerful armature of film remains, counterintuitively, not its visual and sound tracks, but its attention to narrative.
Alas, a chase scene, however artfully tarted up, is still only a chase scene.