The Cooler

By Mark Cappuccio

Luck: some have it, some don't, and boy does Bernie Lootz (William H Macy) not have it. In fact, he is so unlucky that he is employed by his friend Shelly (Alec Baldwin) in the Shangri-la Las Vegas casino as a cooler. Cooler is someone whose presence at a gambling table can make the luckiest person start to lose; Bernie had run up so many debts in town that Shelly stepped in to save his life, letting him pay off the money by working for next to nothing.

Bernie falls for a waitress, Natalie (Maria Bello), and after she actually accepts his advances and they sleep together his luck begins to change and his own livelihood and Shelly's could suffer. Bernie wants to leave Las Vegas and this life behind and start again elsewhere but Shelly does not want to lose his best cooler and the money it saves him. Things get more complicated still when Bernie's son and his new pregnant wife turn up and want to borrow money off him. Bernie agrees but when his son is caught gambling with loaded dice by Shelly, the fit really hits the Shan!

This is a great little film, one of those that creeps out under the radar and takes you by surprise because of its intriguing story and excellent acting by all involved. Written by Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer and directed by Kramer also it is a story with echoes of other films like Leaving Las Vegas and more recently the Spanish film Intacto which concentrated on people who were uber-lucky and used this luck to gamble with their lives. The Cooler however is like an 'anti-intacto' in that Bernie sucks up others' bad luck but does not use it himself causing all kinds of mayhem around him. Macy is very good as Bernie, although I felt that he was slightly typecast as the down-beaten loser that we feel sorry for but want to win despite the odds. The real surprises are Alec Baldwin and Maria Bello. Baldwin seems to be on fire as Shelly the old school casino boss who refuses to build theme rides and cater for the Vegas tourists despite pressure from his co-owners. He eats up every scene he is in and shows that with a great script he can put in a performance that makes you forget about all the other dross he has starred in. Bello, who you may know from a starring role in TV's ER, is also fantastic; she makes her character believable, likeable and is showing now that she is an actress to watch. Supporting players include the ever reliable Paul Sorvino as heroin-addicted lounge singer Buddy, Ron Livingston as Larry one of the new school of casino bosses who wants the revamp the whole place and more than matches Baldwin's intense performance and finally Bernie's son Mikey played by Sean Hatosy who we know as soon as he enters with his white trash wife that he is up to no good and will get Bernie in trouble.

Overall it's a character-driven film but with some excellent stand-out scenes: Bernie's routine of walking the casino floor and getting a coffee only to find the cream has run out every time is very inventive; the sights of Vegas, all glittering and alive, are well juxtaposed with Bernie's crappy apartment and the empty cat's bowl – even his cat's left him! It all works really well to create a believable film world that you almost know reflects what's going on behind the real casinos and gambling dens in America's most false and unreal town.

It's often said, but this could become a little underground cult gem that people fall in love with and end up quoting and discussing with reverence. It also has a killer ending that fits perfectly with the whole film and does not feel tagged on or unimaginative like other hollywood products! So spend some time with a loser and enjoy it, and see a film that is romantic without being cheesy and credits its audience with a degree of intelligence.
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