In Vegas lore, a “cooler” is someone who brings bad luck to winning gamblers, simply through proximity. In the movie The Cooler, William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a cooler at a Las Vegas casino. Bernie is, by his own admission, a loser. His life has been filled with bad luck, and he is terminally unhappy. Bernie’s job is to walk through the casino and brush up against gamblers who are on a winning streak. As soon as he does this, their luck changes and they begin to lose. This arrangement keeps the house from giving away too much money.
Bernie’s boss is Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin). He is under pressure from some young, hotshot business investors to make the casino more modern. Specifically, they want him to book a hot young singer (Joey Fatone) instead of an aging lounge lizard (Paul Sorvino) with a heroin addiction. They also want him to do away with the cooler and plant subliminal messages in the sound system instead. Shelly won’t have any of it; he fondly remembers a time when Vegas was seedy, and he prefers it that way. As long as he’s in charge, there’s going to be an old-fashioned feel to the place.
One day, Bernie meets a casino waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello). They flirt casually. Then she actually seems to persue him. Naturally, he assumes his heart will be broken, given his lifelong streak of losing. But that doesn’t happen. The two fall in love and begin a mutually satisfying relationship. As soon as they profess their feelings for one another, Bernie’s cooling ability fades. His “magic” stops working because his luck has changed. Shelly wants to protect the casino’s money and he also doesn’t want to give in to the hotshots with the stupid ideas. He wants his cooler. So he sets out to ruin the relationship between Bernie and Natalie.
How’s that for a premise? Vegas lore is always amusing (like the fact that the hotels don’t have 13th floors – although they really do) and this particular piece of it sets up a very intriguing concept for a story. The whole movie deals with luck and what happens when your luck changes. There’s also a hidden theme of domination. Bernie’s bad luck dominates his life, but is that a real phenomenon or just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Shelly believes it is real, and he also thinks that he can dominate Bernie by making sure nothing good happens to the guy. After all, this domination is good for business.
The idea that one person could be so burdened with bad luck that he can spread it around to others makes for a compelling character. William H. Macy specializes in playing sad sacks, so he’s kind of a natural choice. He’s also a very good choice, as he is able to bring seemingly endless variation to his sad sack characters. I like the way Macy gives Bernie an initial pessimism, then allows a shimmer of optimism to come through. This later gives way to an abundance of optimism that completely changes the way Bernie thinks of himself. For the first time in his life, he is liberated. It’s an astonishing character arc beautifully conveyed by a brilliant actor.
The Cooler also has strong performances from Maria Bello and Alec Baldwin. For better or worse, Baldwin’s public persona is that he’s a hot-tempered guy. (Remember that photographer he famously scuffled with many years ago?) I don’t know if you’d exactly call this typecasting, but Baldwin brings a genuine menace to his character. The actor has always had a real-life sense of danger, but this is one of the few times he’s brought that so fully to the screen. The other time was in Glengarry Glen Ross, but that was a more internal sense of danger. Shelly, on the other hand, is prone to fits of rage or violence when he fails to get his way. The guy can just snap. His manipulative nature makes him a perfect foil for Bernie.
One of the most interesting things about the film is that writer-director Wayne Kramer isn’t afraid to walk on the dark side. Some pretty disturbing stuff happens here, especially in a subplot about Bernie’s manipulative son (Shawn Hatosy) and his pregnant girlfriend (Estella Warren). Although at times difficult to watch, I have to say that the darkness was not predictable. Without giving anything away, I anticipated certain dark twists to the story, but the things I expected are not necessarily the things that actually happen. That quality gives the movie more of an edge.
One thing The Cooler lacks – much to its disadvantage – is a satisfying ending. The story’s conclusion relies on one of the most outrageous examples of a deus ex machina I’ve ever seen in a motion picture. The story paints itself into a corner, then uses a totally unrealistic plot manipulation to get itself out. My assumption is that Kramer was trying to make a statement about the unpredictable nature of luck. However, the all-too-convenient plot twist only reeks of desperation. There are a lot of great elements to The Cooler. Unfortunately, the lack of a strong ending waters down the message.
If you can overlook that sizable flaw, there is enough here to make the movie worth seeing. Luck is a very hard-to-define concept. The characters in The Cooler are all trying to quantify something that can’t be quantified. They are basing their lives around the flawed notion that luck is consistent and that it can be controlled. Over the course of the film, they all learn that just the opposite is true. Although the ending is a let-down, it’s still interesting to see the lessons luck ultimately teaches each of the characters.
( out of four)
The Cooler is rated R for strong sexuality, violence, language and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
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