The Cooler (7/10)

Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley

Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is The Cooler, a person with such bad luck it rubs off on other gamblers. He owes a huge gambling debt to sociopathic Casino Manager, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), and is working it off by appearing at tables of lucky gamblers to cool them off. If a guy’s on a roll, Bernie is paged and told to go to Table 3, or wherever the lucky gambler might be. Bernie walks up and places a bet and the hot gambler is suddenly cold.

Bernie’s not much to look at and certainly isn’t a great conversationalist, but beautiful cocktail waitress Natalie Belisano (Maria Bello) makes a pass at him. Bernie’s nonplussed, but responds and they start a relationship. Bernie’s already told Shelly he’s quitting in a few days, but his relationship with Natalie has affected his ability as a Cooler, and Shelly doesn’t like that. Then Bernie’s son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy), and girl friend, Charlene (Estella Warren), arrive and things go from bad to worse.

Macy, who played a memorable roll in Fargo, is equally memorable here. He and Bello and Baldwin portray realistic, believable characters. This is a gritty, prosaic story of the rough life in Las Vegas. One thing that detracts from the quality of this film is a gratuitous anti-Catholic joke, punch line really, at the beginning of the film that had no reason for being except to make yet another anti-Catholic statement that seems to now be de rigueur for small-minded Hollywood filmmakers. Too bad director-writer (with Frank Hannah) Wayne Kramer has chosen to be branded with this stick because this movie shows talent and the bigoted line is uncalled-for and has no relationship to the story.

Despite that, this is an entertaining film. There aren’t a lot of laughs, but it does present a grim statement about Las Vegas and the people who created it and made it what it is today, especially the little people nobody notices, like Bernie and Natalie. We see what an empty, vacuous life Bernie leads in where and how he lives. Shelly, too, typifies the psyche of a sociopath, who interacts with people with no emotional involvement whatever for how his actions affect them. Natalie starts to ride a wave, but it takes her someplace she never thought she’d go when she started out. In addition to a snapshot of Las Vegas, this is the story of three people most would never notice. It’s understated but very well done.

November 20, 2003

The End