The Cooler

Nobody is sending thees wan to thee koolah!

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 21 Jun 2004 by Craig Eastman
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How much you get out of The Cooler very much depends on how much you're prepared to invest in it's central conceit. Essentially a simple love story set against the background of a Las Vegas casino, The Cooler turns out to be as much fantasy as fiction when we are introduced to protagonist Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy). A born loser, Bernie's bad luck is so intense that he can change someone else's luck simply by being in their vicinity. It's a tough nut to swallow, but if you can get over the far-fetched concept you'll find Bernie's company just as fulfilling as does his boss Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), manager of the Shangri-La casino.

Determined to maintain the Shangri-La's reputation as the last bastion of "old school" Vegas gambling, Shelly has Bernie on payroll as his top 'Cooler', using his inverse Midas touch to absorb the heat from lucky casino punters on a winning streak. He might always find the coffee cream pot empty at the casino bar, but Bernie really comes into his own when big winners threaten to relieve Shelly of his money and reputation, and to date he's saved the casino millions of dollars. It would be unlike Hollywood to let a sleeping dog lie, however, and it's not long before trouble looms in the form of Natalie (Maria Bello), a casino waitress, and Shelly's boss Nicky 'Fingers' Bonnatto (Arthur J. Nascarella).

The latter is intent on upgrading the Shangri-La to an all-singing, all-dancing twenty-first century commercial sellout, much to the consternation of the resolutely traditional Shelly. It's the former though that proves the real pain in the ass; as sad-sack Bernie falls in love with Natalie and she with him his luck changes for the better and, as a result, so does that of everyone around him. Except Shelly of course. Suddenly confronted by a casino floor full of winners and an emotionally unstable boss demanding to know why, Shelly resorts to increasingly desperate measures to maintain the balance of both his books and his sanity.

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Just as a desperate Baldwin starts (literally) knocking people sideways so too does the movie. The Cooler proves itself to be something of an oddity by pulling a swift rope-a-dope on it's audience, presenting itself initially as a slightly off-kilter yet amiable romantic melodrama before unleashing an increasingly unstable Shelly on both the protagonists and the auditorium. Just as a subplot involving Bernie's drug-addicted son brings us the snapping of legs and arms, so too we are snapped back to our senses as the movie shows it has a sting in it's romantic tale. It's this difficult juxtaposition of romance and kneecapping that, like the central premise itself, makes The Cooler such an oddity, such a challenge and such a rewarding watch.

The violence, as much towards women as men, might be a little disconcerting, but it brings with it the twin joys of shock value and, more importantly, Alec Baldwin in "angry" mode. Proving to be the cherry on top of a raft of fine performances, Baldwin is a vitriolic joy to behold. Macy may well be his usual excellent self, but it's the Boy Baldwin who steals the show. Showing his finest form since Glengarry Glen Ross, the oft-underrated psycho shows UK audiences exactly why that Oscar nom was no fluke. We might have had to wait a good six months or so for the movie to reach our fair shores like some smuggled immigrant in the back of a container at Dover, but thanks to Baldwin it's more than welcome to any number of handouts, so long as they're from punters exchanging fivers for seats.

The rest of the cast are superb, though Macy's "born loser" typecasting is wearing a little thin. Fortunately a little buoyancy is added by his interaction with Baldwin, the pair's twisted relationship and mutual dependence providing a strong emotional anchor for each to play off. A number of names pop up for support in minor roles, from Ron Livingston as Shelly's would-be successor to a pleasing cameo from Paul Sorvino as a has-been lounge act whose apparent "overdose" is the first hint that the casino boss might be two chips short of a stake. Maria Bello makes the most of her role as Natalie, proving that given a decent script to chew on she's not half bad at her job, her performance mildly reminiscent of Elizabeth Shue's turn in Leaving Las Vegas, albeit without the baggage of a hooker-with-a-heart label.

Like Spanish oddity Intacto with which it shares a common theme, your enjoyment of The Cooler will depend a lot on whether you can let your beliefs slide and accept the concept of luck as a tangible commodity. Assuming you can (and if utter concept-bunkum like The Day After Tomorrow is anything to go by the masses have no problem with it whatsoever), director/co-writer Wayne Kramer has crafted a fine ensemble piece that dares to fly in the face of summer fare. Quite contrary to his flick, it's no surprise the lad's become hot property.

Disko awards The Cooler 4 out of 5 broken extremities.

Wayne Kramer
Cast list:
William H. Macy (Bernie Lootz)
Alec Baldwin (Shelly)
Maria Bello (Natalie)