The Station Agent and The Cooler

  • Oddballs Finding One Another
  • Love, Indie Style!
  • Alec Baldwin- Earning Another Paycheck
Directed by a Need for Screeners "Bill, have you ever seen my 'Canteen Boy's Sleeping Bag Trick'"?

Dorf Goes to Sundance or Why I Don't Need to See William H. Macy's Pubes

Living "in the Sticks" of Red America, I see the end of the year/residual beginning of the year as an opportunity to see what the press calls "important cinema." And when I say "press", I really mean Elvis Mitchell and members of The National Board of Review. Not merely content to wait for the mother studio to drop the nipple nectar known as the screener, these enterprising journalists venture out to the junkets of film festivals to officially dictate which unknown, smaller films should be recognized by the larger pop culture universe. Very many times, they stumble upon something sublime and wonderful despite their instincts. Without fail, several underwhelming works fly in under the radar and are declared "quirky", "daring" or "beyond our traditional notions of film" by these forerunners of the Miramax buffet. Once these words have stuck, they spread through the countryside like wildfire. Despite occasional flourishes of unique images or nonlinear character development, these films are as flat and predictable as studio fare with an added touch of pretension for good measure. At this point, the damage is done. The one thing keeping these films from sweeping the Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award is yours truly angrily spilling over a drink in the back room of McCoy's Grill on Westport. Not that I've done this. Within the past week. Two films that have benefited from the upper echelon of film buzz-sters are Todd McCarthy's The Station Agent and Wayne Kramer's The Cooler. Both films feature an indie-approved group of oddballs that develop intimate relationships despite any close resemblance to the existence of logic or nature. Both are set upon templates familiar to the eye but isolated from any emotional connection. Both use painfully obvious symbolism. Both feature performances that we - the public - are assured will stand the test of time. And both of them suck.

The Station Agent has been out longer in other parts of the country so the critical mass has absorbed a bit more. This "quirky" film that transcends "beyond our traditional notions" centers on Fin (Peter Dinklage), a wee little fella who's obsessed with trains. And when I say "little fella", I mean he's a midget. And when I say obsessed, he's so obsessed that he works at a miniature train shop. Miniature, like he is. But more on obvious symbolism in a minute. A friend of his dies and he's left a train station in NEWFOUNDLAND, New Jersey. Note: ALL CAPS represents important symbolism. Fin moves to NEWFOUNDLAND and he spends a lot of his day watching trains and walking down the train tracks. In this odyssey of nothingness, Fin starts hanging out with his neighbor, Joe (Bobby Cannavale). Joe runs a snack cart on a road with no foot traffic. Why does he do this? Because he's WACKY, that's why. (Sorry, that shouldn't be capped. No symbolism implied.) And because he's a funny guy with a funny accent. Cannavale mugs so much that you wonder if he's trying to claim title to the Marx Brother estate as a bastard great grandson. Then, there's Olivia (KCFCC winner Patricia Clarkson), an older woman who almost runs over Fin. Twice. Because he's short. And she's absent-minded. But I will say this. For a film claiming to make a serious story about the vertically-challenged, watching Fin fly off the road is absolutely hilarious. It could have only been cooler if she tossed him. She would be absent-minded enough to do this. A mild distraction forms at the local library is Emily (Michelle Williams), who has a crush on Fin. Why? Why not? The film has little interest in explaining this so why should I? Mainly, she's a nice love interest because she's white trash and she can bring Fin down when he gets too close. These characters have nothing in common except for that they're all quirky and lonely. So they hang out and walk down the train tracks all day. Why is this film so obsessed with train?. Because they're stuck in this NEW FOUND LAND and can't go anywhere. All they can do is watch the trains GOING OTHER PLACES. They are stationary. Kind of like a STATION AGENT. Which is good because that's the name of the film.

Nothing much happens in The Station Agent and that's largely the point. I can only assume that McCarthy hoped to draw the audience into a study of lonely and isolated characters. That would have been fine if the characters would have been worth studying. Fin, as played by Dinklage, is meant to create sympathy because he's angry about being treated differently. Fine, but it's kind of hard to feel sorry for a moody, withdrawn, alcoholic prick. No matter how small they are. Perhaps he can be excused for acting this way, so please excuse me if I don't want to sit through a film that centers around a character like this. Cannavale treats the duty of comic relief primarily as showing up to the set, talking in an accent, and making faces. The film tries to develop a sad story line about how he takes care of his father, but script limitations mainly focuses on Joe being annoying and clownish for the other characters. Perhaps no one in the film is more baffling than Olivia. She starts out as a high-strung and somewhat foolish character. Then, without announcement or plot device, she shifts into a manic-depressive slump who reaches a tragic level of near-suicide and matriarchal collapse. Where did this come from? The script seemingly assumed an actor could make this sort of transfer graceful. But Clarkson seems to read it right off the page and go from there. I've seen Clarkson now in three critically-acclaimed films (Far From Heaven and Pieces of April) and I have to concede to bafflement. Her delivery is flat and I haven't seen her add anything to a character that wasn't in the dialogue. Perhaps this is why she's so appealing to failed screenwriters. And when I mean failed screenwriters, I mean film critics. Oops, shouldn't have let that one slip. The only character of interest is Emily, but William's positive presence is hampered by a script interested in making her into a white-trash melodrama. Even if these characters were better drawn, The Station Agent gives them no reason to find comfort in one another except for furthering the eccentric nature of the piece. Why then have critics flocked to it so generously? Based on face value, they seem to embrace the film because the story doesn't subject Dinklage to Sandlerian mockery. And it's an indie that doesn't use a short person as a fantastical metaphor. (As Dinklage so perfectly spoofed in 1995's Living in Oblivion) Is this repressed guilt or art house masturbation? I contend that it doesn't matter either way.

A film that's all plot when perhaps it should have been all about the characters (maybe) is the "quirky" and "daring" The Cooler. Set in an old-school Las Vegas casino called Shangra-La, the film focuses on Bernie (William H. Macy), a man whose job is to give gambler's bad luck. He's a "cooler" and his mere presence seems to doom the luck of any high or low roller. The opening of the film follows Bernie around the pit as his touch curses tables and a brush of his shoulder loeses thousands of dollars. It seems that Bernie's job as the bearer of bad luck was formed when - in a situation of bad luck for himself - he had to pay off debts owed to Shelly (Alec Baldwin), the casino's owner. Shelly is a rather nasty character who sheds a lot of a tears over his destruction. He may feed herion to his aging lounge siner (Paul Sorvino) but he laments the drug's lasting impact. This promises an interesting scenario: Bernie the Angel with his spiritual, negative powers affecting everyone he touches serving the dark Lord of greed and violence. Unfortunately, this film would rather tell the story of Bernie falling for Natalie (Maria Bello), a hard-talking cocktail waitress. Their affair is a busy one, requiring high drama and high romance in the final few days of Bernie's service to Shangra-La. This involves Bernie trying to help out his son Mike (Shawn Hatosy) and his pregnant wife who so conveinantly show up to make things even busier. The film is very interested in the idea of Bernie and Natalie's romance despite its implausibilities. Yes, they are both desperate at bad points of their life. But the film gets so involved with creating this relationship with such urgency as a way of furthering the plot. As it turns out, Shelly hired Natalie to seduce Bernie in an attempt to keep him in Shangra-La. Oh, was that a spolier? Honestly, if you couldn't see it coming a mile away, you'll have forgotten my utterance by the time you see the film. But when this romance propels Bernie to move further away from PARADISE, Shelly gets more violent and threatens to destroy everything that Bernie cares about.

In other words, The Cooler is about the Devil using lust to tempt his Servant and the Servant rising up to banish him from Shangra-La. Which, as the film reminds us, mean "paradise." No need to reference your Bible's on this one, children. That's what it could have been, and the scenes that directly focus on Macy and Baldwin's character suggest this could have been interesting if proper care had been given to forming this relationship. But the film places most of its time and energy on Bernie and Natalie. And this is a desperate and vulnerable pair. Since the chemistry between Macy and Bello doesn't do the trick, director Kramer decides to rely on the symbolism of full-frontal nudity to convey the proper emotions. Why, Bernie's so vulnerable in the presence of true love that we get to see Macy's saggy ass and his pubic hair. He cares so much about Natalie that we get to see him eat her out. This act is normally misogynist shorthand to express a man who really loves a woman. Why else would they drop down to the nappy dugout? (Make V-formation with fingers, place at mouth, jut forth tongue and make that blah-blah-blah noise) There's just something about graphic sex between two movie star made up to look as bad as possible that doesn't move me to tears. The Cooler is so busy to get to the dephts of this relationship that there's never a proper establishment. This is also the fault of a film that wants to surprise us with that big spoiler I blew earlier. Why is this used as a catalyst for the plot when it's such an obvious issue? You're Wayne Kramer and you want the audience to see the raw emotion of these characters. You know that no one buys this relationship as legit so it's going to be no surprise when the surprise is sprung. Why not reveal this hand at the beginning so Bello can turn Natalie into something more than an unbelievable love interest? I don't know if this would make The Cooler any better, but it might have been a start. After that, I would have taken off Baldwin's shackles and let him treat Shelly like an SNL skit gone bad. Baldwin, for as much shit as he takes from a lot of critics, is a pretty interesting actor that never hurts a film for a lack of enthusiasm. His Shelly feels like a bull on sedatives: An actor wanting to take on the full impact of Lucifer as Sam Rothstein. But The Cooler is just as confused about Shelly as it is about everything else. In the end, I learned that I never want to see William H. Macy's carpet ever again.

But what do I know? I think Renee Zellwegger is better than Clarkson.I thought Eugene Levy did a better job than Baldwin. I think the schedule at the AMC 30 in Olathe, KS may be more enlightened that any of the art houses throughout my hometown. And I don't even have a Pultizer.

The Pitch:
1 Thomas and the Magic Railroad
1/2 Leaving Las Vegas
1 and a Half The Station Agent and The Cooler
See It For:
Dinklage laughing off the invitation to Harry Knowles' "party pooper" suite at the Breckenridge Film Festival