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The Cooler

Bernie Lootz is a hapless loser who carries an unearthly aura of miserable luck. He is a live action Schleprock with a permanent rain cloud over his head and an unexplained supernatural power to rub his bad fortune onto anyone he comes near. Bernie is forced to work off his gambling debts by “cooling” down the winning streaks of others at the Shangri-La, a last of its kind old school casino off the Vegas strip. Everything Bernie touches turns to lead, but our heroes special power is shifted into reverse when love intervenes and he falls for a beautiful, cocktail waitress. If this sounds like a fun premise full of comedic potential you would be right, however the filmakers have not chosen the light hearted route. The Cooler owes its pedigree to darker films like Hard Eight and Leaving Las Vegas rather than more cheery fair like Swingers or Honeymoon in Vegas.

Most of the darkness in this film emanates from the Shangi-La's manager Shelley, played with lethal intensity by Alec Baldwin who hasn't been this good in a while. The moment we learn that Bernie (William H. Macy) has partially paid his debt to Shelley by taking a baseball bat to the knee, leaving him permanently lame, we understand that we are in for a rough ride.

The clock begins to tick when Bernie informs Shelley that his debt will be paid in six days and he will be free. Of course we know that Bernie will not get off this easy. Shelley is a man holding on too tight to the old ways of Vegas and is not going to let a sure thing like Bernie slip away. Shelley and Bernie's obsolescence, are sped up when a smarmy, young, crackerjack, Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), is brought in to renovate the casino and bring it up to the "disneyfied" standards of those on the strip. Shelley is not happy.

This out with the old in with the new theme is threaded throughout the film and presented beautifully in a scene with Shelley and a has been, junkie lounge singer Buddy Stafford (Paul Sorvino). When Buddy laments to Shelly about the humiliation that older lions must feel after losing control of the pride to the younger lion instead of just walking away when their time is done, we know who he is really talking about. And when Shelley tells him that it's better to do it "natures way" we understand that we will not see Shelley go gently into that good night.

The film has plenty of of these nice moments, but the real treat is the romance between Bernie and Natalie (Maria Bello) a pretty, but virulent cocktail waitress with a troubled past. Macy is an unlikely romantic lead and while ladies will not be swooned by the repeated shots of his rump during the steamy sex scenes, (edited to avoid an NC-17 rating) no one can deny his fearlessness and commitment as an actor. Bello and Macy turn in flawless performances and are fascinating to watch together. We never doubt the passion between Bernie and Natalie and we never venture into Woody Allen creepiness despite the disparity in their age and aesthetic.

With love on his side Bernie changes from "Cooler" to "Heater" leaving a trail of good luck all over the casino. While this is good news for Bernie, it is the worst thing that can happen to Shelley whose backers are breathing down his neck. Shelley uses all of his old school viciousness to revert Bernie back to his pathetic state. The supernatural origins of luck or lack thereof are never explored here and this is what keeps the lighter more lyrical side of this story at bay. The magic realism elements in the film always seem to be trying to poke through the surface, but they never quite make a full appearance and this may frustrate some viewers.

Director Wayne Kramer's debut is as promising as P.T Anderson's in the aforementioned Hard Eight. Kramer teams up with first time writer Frank Hannah to explore the transforming power of love and create a stark contrast to the glamour and glitz of today's "family friendly" Vegas. The writing here is tight sans some obligatory casino characters and clichéd mobster dialog that Baldwin somehow manages to pull off believably. Mark Isham captures the tone of the film with a moody jazz score. Cinematographer James Whitaker also throws in some nice nice visual touches as when Shelley recognizes a cheating craps player by looking right through the skin and bone of his hand or a slow motion, tumbling casino chip dissolving into an alka-seltzer tablet that perfectly establishes Baldwin's character.

Ultimately though this film is not about a catchy soundtrack or any flashy camera tricks. It is the top notch cast and the thoughtful character driven story that makes The Cooler work. It is the type of storytelling that hearkens back to the old days of Hollywood when characters mattered. Unfortunately these types of films have been pushed "off the strip", but as anyone who really appreciates Vegas will tell you this is where the real action happens.

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