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"It's simple, unglamorous, and ordinary."
"The brilliance of Baldwin's performance is that he allows us to see Shelly as more than just a typical villain."
"Not the most thrilling nor plausible story you'll ever see, but it does have an earthy charm."
The Cooler  

Cast

Bernie Lootz: William H. Macy
Shelly Kaplow: Alec Baldwin
Natalie Belisario: Maria Bello
Mikey: Shawn Hatosy
Larry Sokolov: Ron Livingston
Buddy Stafford: Paul Sorvino
Charlene: Estella Warren
Johnny Capella: Joey Fatone
Review January 2004

Bernie Lootz has the uncanny ability of turning winners into losers at the Shangri La hotel and casino in Las Vegas. "I do it by being myself," he says, falling hopelessly into the self-fulfilling prophecy. But all of that is about to change after meeting the girl of his dreams - lady luck. Written, directed, and storyboarded by first timer, Wayne Kramer, "The Cooler" is a contradiction to the sexy and glamorous adventures of prototypical Las Vegas life we've come to know. It's simple, unglamorous, and ordinary. And though it may lack the punch of a sophisticated heist film, the stakes are just as high for Bernie and those living in the shadows of the Las Vegas underworld, virtuous individuals seeking a return to normalcy.

Bernie Lootz has to be the unluckiest guy alive. How unlucky is he? He's so unlucky that everything he touches turns sour: his marriage, his relationship with his son, his cat. Heck, even his coffee comes without cream. The streak of bad luck started well before Bernie encountered Shelly Kaplow, the manager of one of Las Vegas' few remaining traditional casinos, the Shangri La. The two were friends until one day, Bernie racked up a significant amount of debt he couldn't repay. Rather than take his life, Shelly covered for him, but in the process, also crippled him as a constant reminder. In order to pay off his debt, Bernie became indebted to Shelly and the Shangri La. In fact, his bad luck was put to good use at the casino. Bernie was hired as a cooler, a person who thrives on cooling customer's winning streaks simply by appearing at their table.

Now, several years later, and with just a few weeks to go before completely paying off his debt, everything changes for Bernie. For starters, he encounters Natalie, a buxom cocktail waitress at the Shangri La, who has had her share of misfortune in the romance department. She takes pity on the luckless co-worker and soon, the two become an item. Even more significant is Bernie's dramatic change in luck. He immediately gains confidence despite his inability to turn a table. His estranged son re-enters his life, needing his help. And yes, he even receives cream in his coffee. Everything goes from bad to swell in Bernie's world.

But unfortunately, his good fortune is Shelly's bad. No longer able to call on Bernie to deflate his customer's hot streaks, the casino nearly loses a million dollars in one night alone. On top of the financial concerns, Shelly must also deal with other investors, led by Larry Sokolov, who wish to transform the old fashioned Shangri La into a modern, theme park. Among their first steps: Get rid of his star performer and friend, Buddy Stafford, and replace him with a much younger, sexier version. Unable to deal with change, Shelly begins to take matters into his own hands, potentially destroying everything in his way, including Bernie and Natalie's relationship.

"The Cooler" was written and directed by Wayne Kramer along with Frank Hannah. And while watching it, I had to wonder if the two had Macy, Bello, and Baldwin in mind when writing the screenplay because the fit is just perfect. Macy is sympathetic and has the demeanor, the look and mannerisms of a guy who's down on his luck. Maria Bello is the cute, sexy, strong willed waitress who falls in love with the loser. "You blindsided me, Bernie. I never saw it coming." In her defense of their relationship, she reminds me a lot of Sharon Stone in "Casino." And Alec Baldwin seems right at home as the scary, big man, running the show. Together, the stars work terrifically.

The script itself is very simple and straightforward; however, the premise and resolution both require a leap of faith. In other words, if you accept the notion that everything hinges on luck or that a man can make a living based on his unluckiness, you'll be fine. Of most interest to me was the concentration on subplots. Although there is a primary story line, it is the second, third, and fourth plot lines that are extremely well developed. The introduction of Mikey, Bernie's distant son, and his pregnant wife Charlene; the aging Buddy Stafford and his struggle to save face; and the investors determined to turn the Shangri La into a modern facility. All of these are well developed, complementing the main characters with more texture, substance, and purpose. It's what great writing should do.

Unsophisticated, the film is as much about preserving the old with the new. Yes, this is the new Las Vegas scene, but the depiction is that of a noirish heist film of old, like the Rat Pack original: "Ocean's 11." And it's very clear that Kramer knows the balance between old and new. He knows when to use style to spice up a scene or make a smooth transition and when to let his characters shine undistracted. Throughout, you may notice things like see through, loaded dice or my favorite: poker chips turning into Alka-Seltzer. But these special effects and editing techniques are not thrown in pointlessly. They are important storytelling elements.

Although William H. Macy is effective as the focal hero of the film, it is really Alec Baldwin who shines, delivering his finest supporting performance outside of "Glengarry Glen Ross." Portraying the two-faced casino owner Shelly Kaplow, Baldwin exudes a venomous evil that is oftentimes followed by remorse and regret. "If you bail on me, I'm gonna close the books on you," he tells Bernie angrily, but with the subtext of impending loneliness. Baldwin's character is faced with many dilemmas, in particular, having to let go of everything that is dear to him: his friends and his business. And it is these crises that make him sympathetic. Shelly is not a role model, by any means. He's powerful, overbearing, and violent. But he's also genuine and the brilliance of Baldwin's performance is that he allows us to see Shelly as more than just a typical villain. There is a forgiving, sentimental, and loyal side beneath that egotistical shell.

If you've been to Las Vegas recently, you'll instantly recognize the glitz and glamour of the big hotels. These monster facilities have roller coasters, indoor beaches, and play host to top notch entertainers like Celine Dion and Elton John. They're meant to boost tourism and appeal to families and vacationers of all ages. All of this is the Las Vegas that Shelly despises. Less class and more cheese. It's easy to understand Shelly's disdain for the investors and what they represent. But it's also ironic in the sense that casinos have always been in pursuit of the green backs, eliminating windows so you can't tell the time, keeping oxygen levels high, offering free drinks and perks to those who gamble, even employing coolers to reverse fortunes. It's big business and the motivations are unsurprising.

"The Cooler" is a no frills, simple drama about two individuals trying to escape the confines of sin city and lead normal lives without temptation. It's not the most thrilling nor plausible story you'll ever see, but it does have an earthy charm - a credit to the performances from Macy, Bello, and Baldwin. The film shows that ordinary characters can exist in extraordinary circumstances. And regardless of whether you believe in luck or not, you cannot easily discount the effects of love. Says Bernie, "Everything is different now. I've got lady luck on my side."



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