The Cooler clicks, snaps, and charms
Rob Levy
12/19/2003 4:53:06 PM

Bernie Lootz is The Cooler. Armed with bad luck and aw-shucks charm, Bernie is a lonely, downtrodden ex-gambler riding it out in the Shangri-La Casino in Las Vegas. As he strides through his final week as the casino's 'cooler', Bernie finds love in the most unexpected way possible. But in order to get it, he's got to beat the odds, and the scoundrel who fights to keep him kept down.

Succinctly put, Bernie is a magnet. He attracts good luck, repels it and then waylays it with only his very presence. He's a jinx, a Karmic disaster, an anti-Midas. Bernie takes good luck, gold and greed and turns it to dust, much to the delight of the Shelly Kaplow, the Shangri-La's casino's manager.

William H. Macy stars as Bernie, a man who has spent a lifetime living in the shadow of failure. He's had a failed marriage, a nonexistent relationship with his son and a massive gambling debt that literally left him limping into the clutches of Shelly Kaplow. Everything and anything that could go wrong for him does. Despite past violent histories, they also share a relationship based on mutual needs.

With this role, Macy walks a tightrope, playing both sides of Bernie extremely well. On one hand Bernie is a nebbish with a sad life and no hopes and dreams. On the other hand, Macy brings Bernie to life as a man invigorated by love, luck and hope. Macy exudes these emotions with relish. He is one of the finest character actors around and this film sees him in top form.

Maria Bello plays Natalie, a down on her luck cocktail waitress who is befuddled and subsequently charmed by Macy's Bernie. She is a strong-willed, passionate woman trapped by her surrounding who speaks her mind and stands her ground. Bello, successful on TV (ER) and in film (Auto Focus, Coyote Ugly), portrays Natalie as a desperate, angry woman, searching for a bigger pay off. Bernie ends up being that payoff and the couple plan to run off together. Bello's powerful performance has garnered her a Golden Globe nomination.

Fellow Golden Globe Nominee Alec Baldwin steals the film. He plays Shelly Kaplow in his darkest performance since Glengarry Glen Ross. Baldwin atones for his sinfully dismal turn in The Cat In The Hat with this incomparable performance. Kaplow is a man on fire. He shouts, bullies, punches and hammers his way through the competition. His heavy-handed tactics get him what he wants. Kaplow is insidious, visceral, ruthless, greedy, corrupt and sadistic. He manipulates Bernie and Natalie to his own ends.

Ron Livingston is great as the sly, up-and-coming casino magnate Larry Sokolov. He is weasley and sneaky, but realistic as to how to turn the archaic Shangri-La into the next Bellagio.

One of the subplots at work here is the clash of wills and ideologies over the status of Las Vegas. There are two schools at loggerheads: the old school which wants a city controlled by casinos and filled with adult, gamblers; and the new school wanting fancy
entertainment complexes and family-oriented fun. This important theme motivates the main antagonists, Larry and Shelly.

Shelly belligerently argues that Vegas has lost its appeal. He believes the city has been tainted by large casinos that appeal more to families than old school gamblers. He is paranoid that this way of life is being challenged and impinged upon. Larry, on the other hand, believes that the casino will turn a larger profit by catering to the Disney crowd. Sadly, both Natalie and Bernie suffer under their respective decisions.

Although The Cooler is a smartly written, well-paced feature, its strength lies in its cast. Macy, Bello and Baldwin have some seriously gripping interplay. They capably create a mood of magic, tension and urgency. All three actors take these ugly, gruellingly unhappy people and make shape them into developed, compelling characters adrift in the neon wasteland of Las Vegas.

Director Wayne Kramer has given us a perfect example of how a small scale production can yield big dividends. Kramer and co-writer Frank Hannah have crafted a really fun film with slick direction, a great story and a solid cast.

This 'little' film clicks, snaps and charms its way past the screen and into your psyche. It's a film that is simultaneously mortifying and gratifying, covering all the emotional bases, greed, lust, envy and eventually love.

There is more to the Cooler than debt and doubt. An air of vindication, freedom and spirt courses throughout the film. Casino films are usually shrouded in dice and despair, but this one delivers charm and warmth. It is an upfifting and hopeful film.


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