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
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
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."