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The Cooler

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Cooler

Starring: Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello
Director: Wayne Kramer
Rated: R
RunTime: 101 Minutes
Release Date: November 2003
Genres: Comedy, Romance

*Also starring: Shawn Hatosy, Ron Livingston, Paul Sorvino, Estella Warren, Arthur J. Nascarella, Joey Fatone, M.C. Gainey, Don Scribner, Tony Longo, Richard Israel

Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Well-fed people in the industrialized world are not supposed to be as suspicious as those in poorer nations, but gambling casinos have a way of making participants believe that luck is with them. In Abe Burrows and Joe Swerling's musical "Guys and Dolls," Sky Masterson calls on Lady Luck to "be a lady tonight," while Brian Mahowny in Richard Kwietniow's gripping film "Owning Mahowny," is confident that there is such as thing as a winning streak (as though if you get heads five times in a row, the next flip will also show a president's face).

Wayne Kramer's "The Cooler," written by Kramer and Frank Hannah, is the most recent of a number of films set in Las Vegas. In this case, the title character, Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy), is a fellow who capitalizes on his eternal bad luck, if capitalizing is what you call a situation that finds a loser working like an indentured servant for a mafia type who once broke his knee and caused him to walk with a permanent limp. Unaccustomed as I am to the Vegas culture part of which is to refuse to empty out a casino for weeks for a filming, the shoot actually taking place in Reno I have no idea whether there is a job title "cooler" in the Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook. "The Cooler," then, is meant to be taken metaphorically.

After Bernie accumulates a debt of $150,000 at the named- against-type Shangri-La Casino, the manager, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), discovers that Bernie is a loser not only with dice but is sadly lacking the company of women and his estranged son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy). Shelly, under pressure by corporate bigwig Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston) to turn his old- fashioned setup into a Disney-type playland, allows Bernie to work off his debt employed as a cooler which is a fellow which is sent to tables played by people on a roll and simply by sitting next to the hot gamblers turns their luck south. When cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello), paid by Shelly to play up to Bernie and thereby encourage him to remain on the job. But the two discover true love, Bernie for the first time, leading to complications that could threaten the lives of both.

"The Cooler" is a hard-hitting look at the frantic 24-7 casino life in Nevada's wildest city, a life without sunshine or moonlight but dedicated strictly to the satisfactions and pains of dice, cards and roulette. We don't wonder that Bernie looks forward to his departure in a matter of days and that his discovery of love has made him on the one hand a lucky fellow who, on the other hand, is marked for execution. In scenes that could have come out of Mike Figgis's 1995 film "Leaving Las Vegas" (about a hopeless alcoholic determined to drink himself to death whose life is turned around by a sad hooker forced to demean herself nightly), Bernie and Natalie share tender moments that lead both to be joyful for the first time in years. William H. Macy, one of writer David Mamet's regulars on both the screen and the legitimate stage ("Oleanna," "Prairie du Chen), turns in his usual, dependable performance with his signature hangdog expression, while Maria Bello, who bears a resemblance to Elizabeth Shue of "Leaving Las Vegas," is convincing as in a hooker-redeemed role, the woman responsible for turning Bernie's life around.

Essentially, then, while the Vegas gambling scene is the subject of the story, the redemptive power of love is the overriding theme. Punctuated by Alec Baldwin's strong role as a tough businessman not unlike his act in James Foley's movie "Glengarry Glen Ross "The Cooler" is a tough, involving film about the strange, unpredictable customs of Lady Luck.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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