Screen Reviews

The Cooler

directed by Wayne Kramer

starring William H. Macy, Maria Bello and Alec Baldwin

Lions Gate

Bernie Lootz is “The Cooler” – the man who brings all the luck to a screeching halt. Armed with bad luck and aw-shucks charm, Bernie is a lonely, downtrodden ex-gambler riding out his final week with the Shangri-La Casino in Las Vegas. As he strides through his final week as the casino’s “cooler,” Bernie finds love in the most unexpected way possible. But in order to get it, he’s got to beat the odds, and the scoundrel who fights to keep him kept down.

Succinctly put, Bernie is a magnet. He attracts good luck, repels it and then waylays it with only his very presence. He’s a jinx, a Karmic disaster, an anti-Midas. Bernie is a pathetic sod. He takes good luck, gold and greed and turns it to dust, much to the delight of Shelly Kaplow, the Shangri-La’s casino’s manager.

William H. Macy stars as Bernie, a man who has spent a lifetime living in the shadow of failure. He’s had a failed marriage, a nonexistent relationship with his son and a massive gambling debt that literally left him limping into the clutches of Shelly Kaplow. Everything and anything that could go wrong for him does. Despite his violent history with Shelly, they share a relationship based on mutual needs.

With this performace, Macy walks a tightrope, playing both sides of Bernie extremely well. On one hand Bernie is a nebbish with a sad life and no hopes and dreams. On the other hand Macy brings Bernie to life as a man invigorated by love, luck and hope. Macy exudes these emotions with relish. He is one of the finest character actors around and this film sees him in top form.

Maria Bello plays Natalie, a down-on-her-luck cocktail waitress who is befuddled and subsequently charmed by Macy’s Bernie. She is a strong-willed, passionate woman trapped by her surrounding who speaks her minds and stands her ground. Bello, successful on TV (ER) and in film (Auto Focus, Coyote Ugly), portrays Natalie as a desperate, angry woman, searching for a bigger pay off. Bernie ends up being that payoff and the couple plan to run off together. Bello’s powerful performance has garnered her a Golden globe nomination

Fellow Golden Globe Nominee Alec Baldwin steals the film. He plays Shelly Kaplow in his darkest performance since Glengarry Glen Ross. Baldwin atones for his sinfully dismal turn in The Cat In The Hat with this incomparable performance. Kaplow is a man on fire. He shouts, bullies, punches and hammers his way through the competition. His heavy-handed tactics get him what he wants. Kaplow is insidious, visceral, ruthless, greedy, corrupt and sadistic. He manipulates Bernie and Natalie to his own ends.

Office Space’s Ron Livingston is great as the sly, up-and-coming casino magnate Larry Sokolov. He is weasely and sneaky, but realistic as to how to turn the archaic Shangri-La into the next Bellagio.

One of the subplots at work here is the clash of wills and ideologies over the status of Las Vegas. There are two schools at loggerheads, the old school wants a city controlled by casinos and filled with adults and gamblers, while the new school wants fancy entertainment complexes and family-oriented fun. It is an important theme because it is what motivates the main antagonists, Larry and Shelly.

Shelly belligerently believes and argues that Vegas has lost its appeal. He believes the city has been tainted by large casinos that appeal more to families than to traditional gamblers. It is this belief that underscores his actions. He is paranoid that this way of life is being challenged and impinged upon. Larry in turn believes the casino will turn a larger profit by catering to the Disney crowd. Sadly, both Natalie and Bernie suffer under their respective decisions.

Although The Cooler is a smartly-written, well-paced feature, its strength lies with its cast. Macy, Bello and Baldwin have some seriously gripping interplay. They capably create a mood of magic, tension and urgency. All three actors take these ugly, gruelingly unhappy people and shape them into developed, compelling characters adrift in the neon wasteland of Las Vegas.

Director Wayne Kramer has given us a perfect example of how a small-scale production can yield big dividends. Kramer and co-writer Frank Hannah have crafted a really fun film with slick direction, a great story and a solid cast.

This “little” film clicks, snaps and charms its way past the screen and into your psyche. It’s a film that is simultaneously mortifying and gratifying, covering all the emotional bases, greed, lust, envy and eventually love.

There is more to The Cooler than debt and doubt. An air of vindication, freedom and spirit courses throughout the film. Casino films are usually shrouded in dice and despair, but this one delivers charm and warmth. It is an upfifting and hopeful film.

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