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The Cooler (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

The Cooler

The Cooler


Starring William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin, Ron Livingston, Joey Fatone, Paul Sorvino, Estella Warren, Arthur J. Nascarella, M.C. Gainey, Ellen Greene, Don Scribner, Tony Longo, Richard Israel, Timothy Landfield, T.J. Gioia, Jewel Shepard, Gordon Michaels, Doc Watson, Larry Elliott and Dan Lemieux.

Screenplay by Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer.

Directed by Wayne Kramer.

Distributed by Lionsgate Films. 101 minutes.  Rated R.

There are certain people in the world whose luck is always bad.   Complete losers.  Fate’s stooges.  They muddle on from disappointment to disappointment without any hope of anything going right.  People around them use them as an example… things may be flawed in my life, but at least I’m not him.  The type of guy who in an old cartoon would be walking around with a thundercloud above his head.  To paraphrase the old song, if not for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.

Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is one of those guys.  He is a recovering gambler in his fifties with a limp from a long ago beating given due to gambling debts.  Bernie has lost his wife, become estranged from his son, never held a steady or upstanding job.  He lives in a sleazy Vegas motel, spending his nights watching televangelists on the TV and having to listen to the hooker next store servicing a never-ending stream of johns.  He has less than $3,000.00 life savings, all squirreled away in a coffee can in his room. 

Bernie’s dire mojo is so all-encompassing that he works at a Vegas casino to pay off a debt as a cooler.  If someone on the floor is in the middle of a hot streak, all Bernie has to do is touch or interact with the gambler and suddenly they are ice cold.

Bernie doesn’t seem to mind his effect on life.  He’s resigned and even a little bemused by it.  His only friend in the world is Shelly (Alec Baldwin) a tough-talking head of the Shangri-La Casino.  Shelly feels great affection for Bernie, they have been together running scams since they were young and in certain ways Shelly likes to protect Bernie.  However, Shelly has a short fuse, a violent temper and will not be crossed by anyone… in fact it was he who administered the beating that gave Bernie his limp.

Shelly is old school Vegas.  His casino is the last bastion for the Rat Pack feel of Sin City.  He is disgusted by the family theme park hotel-casinos that have taken over the strip.  This disgust is deepened when the owner of the hotel brings in a Harvard business-type (Ron Livingston) to rejuvenate the place.

Everything starts to change for Bernie when he meets Natalie (Maria Bello), a struggling cocktail waitress who works at the Shangri-La.  At first, the naturally gloomy Bernie can’t believe that she would like him, but as they get to know each other he finds himself falling in love.  Even more unexpected to Bernie is that she seems to feel the same way.  Suddenly, Bernie feels like a winner in his life.  The problem is, a new happy-go-lucky Bernie is no longer bad news on the casino floor.  Suddenly, everywhere he goes, people are hitting jackpots.  Needless to say, this concerns and angers Shelly.

The acting of the leads is superlative.  No one does middle-aged angst better than Macy, and his Bernie is a complicated, multi-layered character.   He makes you like him even when you pity him, and when his life starts to turn around, you really hope for him to break away from his old ways.  Baldwin does his best work in years as Shelly.  He is a man desperately clinging to his job and the past, and yet, he often turns out to be suddenly violent, casually cruel and heartless.

Bello does a wonderful and selfless job as Natalie, she is one of several glamorous actresses this winter who is willing to add weight, lose the make-up and look unattractive to play an interesting role.  (See also: Jennifer Connelly in House of Sand & Fog, Naomi Watts in 21 Grams and Charlize Theron in Monster.)  Natalie was a teen who gave up her baby to adoption and moved to Vegas to become a showgirl; years later she is struggling to make a living serving drinks.  (In a story she tells Bernie, she intimates that she is about 28, but honestly the character looks to be at least in her early-mid thirties.)

The Cooler is a very good, but not flawless, film.  Honestly, I think it went on a bit past the point where the story was fascinating.  It relied a bit too much on coincidence – particularly Bernie running into his long-estranged son in a restaurant and a late development with a drunk driver.  Then again, a film about gambling would have to know that everything in the world is just dumb luck, so I’ll let that slide.

The one other slight problem I had for was the basic premise for the story.  The whole idea of a cooler, while whimsically interesting, in the long run works to the detriment of the film.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know if there are really such people in casinos.  However, I do know that while I was watching the film, I had a hard time believing a smart, no-nonsense exec like Shelly would rely so completely on superstition and sheer circumstance.

Those flaws don’t matter that much in the long run though.  The plusses in The Cooler way overshadow the minuses.  It gives an interesting look at a world in Vegas that is quickly disappearing.  It is also a quietly touching little love story of two life-long losers who finally rolled a seven.  (12/03)

Alex Diamond

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved. Posted: January 10, 2004.

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