The Cooler

Robin Clifford 
The Cooler
Laura Clifford 

A man stands at the roulette table at the Shangri-La casino in Las Vegas and is cleaning out the house with win after win. Like an apparition, Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) appears next to the guy and brushes his hand as he places a bet. Suddenly, the winner is a loser and Bernie moves on to stop the next lucky gambler in “The Cooler.”

First time helmer Wayne Kramer brings us into a throwback world of a Las Vegas of long ago. Shelly Kaplow is the headman at the Shangri-La, an old-fashioned casino that eschews the family oriented entertainment world that the city has become. Shelly jealously guards his hold on his establishment and resists changing with the times, especially since he makes a big profit using the talents of his cooler, Bernie. Lootz, it seems, has such a knack for bad luck that he only has to stand near a gambler to change the fellows luck. Bernie was in to Shelly for a hundred grand and is near the point where he will finish paying off the debt and leave Vegas forever.

As the end of Bernie’s indentured state of being draws to a close, things happen that could threaten it all. He meets a pretty, timeworn waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello) and the two begin to fall in love. This has the negative effect, for Shelly and the casino, of causing Bernie to lose his magical powers to turn winners into losers. Suddenly, Lootz’s worth, and his ability to finish paying off his debt, are in jeopardy. Then, Bernie’s ne’er-do-well son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy), and his floozy girlfriend, Charlene (Estella Warren), arrive at his door and they plan on sponging as much as they can from the hapless man. Trouble is brewing for Bernie.

“The Cooler,” written by Kramer and Frank Hannah, tries to do too many things and loses focus because of it. There is the budding romance between Bernie and Natalie, two people who have suffered the hard knocks of life and, finally, appear to have found their soul mate in the each other. Then, there is the hard-boiled Vegas gambling flick with Shelly running a tough but fair gambling house that is on the verge of being taken over by the greedy front office boys, rep’ed in the person of Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston). And, then, there is the sleazy son come home to introduce even more friction into Bernie’s already tough life. Too many balls are being kept in the air here.

William H. Macy has always been a favorite actor of mine and proves, once again, his ability to create a three-dimensional character. Bernie, you can tell at glance, is a likable loser. When his debt piled up at the Shangri-La, Shelly had one of his kneecaps smashed, leaving Bernie with a permanent limp. But, business is business and, being practical, Lootz agreed to become the casino’s cooler – to great success. Macy is best, though, with Maria Bello and their oddball little romance carries the strongest resonance in “The Cooler.” Bello is also a likable character and displays the vulnerability beneath the tough exterior her life forced her to build. There is nice chemistry between the two characters.

Alec Baldwin is developing into a skilled character actor and does a 3-D job with Shelly Kaplow. The casino boss is a holdover to the mob-controlling days of a Las Vegas of long, long ago. He is not averse to busting heads for infraction of the rules but there is a melancholy kindness under the surface. He cares about his casino and is proud of his stance against the juggernaut of family entertainment that is invading his beloved Vegas. While I thought their characters and their story line a distraction, both Shawn Hatosy and Estella Warren are suitably sleazy as Mikey and Charlene – cheap, white, trailer trash, for sure. A strong supporting cast is underutilized though Paul Sorvino garners sympathy as the junkie, has-been lounge singer Buddy Stafford. Joey Fatone gives a funk stage act as Buddy’s up-and-coming replacement song and dance man, Johnny Cappella.

Tech credits are good with Toby Corbett’s production design giving the Shangri-La casino a nostalgic, early 80’s feel when gambling was gambling and family entertainment was relegated to Disney World. Lensing by James Whitaker is tight and fast moving, lending to the excitement and hubbub of the casino and its clientele.

“The Cooler” is a pretty fair calling card for first-timer Kramer. The script is too busy and could have been pared down and tightened but it is entertaining on different levels. I give it a B-.

Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy, "Seabiscuit") has a talent.  His loser status is so indelibly a part of his character that his mere presence sours the luck of those beside him.  This gift is highly prized by his old friend Shelly (Alec Baldwin, "The Cat in the Hat"), who is worried that Bernie is just one week away from working off a six year debt in his Golden Shangri-La casino as "The Cooler."

Cowriter (with Frank Hannah)/director Wayne Kramer's fable about luck doesn't stand up to heavier hitters like "Intacto" and "Girl on the Bridge," but the sweet romance at its core and a fine supporting turn by Alec Baldwin make this one worth a gamble.

Bernie limps among the gambling tables, worn down by an environment that has no clocks or night or day.  His luck's so bad that when he gets a cup of coffee from bartender buddy Doris (Ellen Greene, "Little Shop of Horrors") it's a ritual between them to see if the creamer just happens to be empty (it always is).  Bernie's insistent that he's leaving Las Vegas at the end of his tenure, but his luck makes a drastic turnaround when Shelly hires a beautiful young waitress, Natalie (Maria Bello, "Auto Focus"), who talks her way into Bernie's bed, then his heart.

Shelly, meanwhile, is facing more problems that make keeping his cooler ever more important. Owner Nicky 'Fingers' Bonnatto (Arthur J. Nascarella, "In the Cut") has arrived with hotshot Harvard grad Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston, HBO's "Sex and the City") with plans for making over the vintage casino into a glitzy entertainment complex and replacing its entertainment, crooner Buddy (Paul Sorvino, "Goodfellas"), with Vegas' answer to Harry Connick Jr., Johnny Cappella ('NSync's Joey Fatone, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding").  The arrival of Bernie's estranged son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy, "A Guy Thing") and Mikey's pregnant girlfriend Charlene (Estella Warren, "The Planet of the Apes") puts into motion the best and worst of Bernie and Shelly, changing their lives forever.

"The Cooler" places too many bets and fails to make a killing.  Bernie's luck is nicely turned around by Natalie's introduction, which, thanks to the two actors, is believable even before an important plot point is unveiled.  Equally well handled is Shelly's downfall, paralleled by Buddy's fate (Sorvino's speech about old lions is prescient for both).  As Bernie's hope resurfaces, Macy's downtrodden body language and droopy features are replaced by confidence and a sunny disposition.  Baldwin's Shelly, meanwhile, gradually goes over to a darker place, his friendliness replaced with ruthlessness.  The old ways of pre-family Las Vegas include the brutality of original mob rule.  The introduction of Bernie's no good son with a girlfriend who goes into labor whenever its convenient gives the film two too many riffs that trail off, going nowhere.

Bello is a major plus as the sometime astrologer (Lady Luck looks to the stars) who takes a shining to an unlikely man.  Macy's face just melts and his eyes shine when he looks at her and Bello reflects that love right back.  They're a naturally sexy couple, gleeful aping the sex noises of the couple next door.  Baldwin's (who also did good work costarring with Hatosy in "Outside Providence") performance becomes more complex in retrospect.  He's a sad man who thinks he has it all and is desperate to keep it.  He ends up with the resignation Bernie began with.

Production design by Tony Corbett gives the film the generally shabby air of an outdated Vegas. Bernie lives in a drab motel/apartment combination that still house the bowls of the cat that's run away.  Reno's Flamingo casino, slated for renovation, stands in for the Golden Shangri-La. Mark Isham's jazzy score is a nice throwback to rat pack days.

"The Cooler" is a nice little film that suffers from too many subplots.  Instead of dealing a full house, Kramer and Hannah went for 52-pickup, but some of those cards are Aces.


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