erasing clouds

The Cooler

reviewed by dan heaton

It's intriguing to observe how Alec Baldwin generates sympathy for the brutal Shelly Kaplow in The Cooler while disguising his character's growing rage. The charming figure runs the old-school Shangri-La Casino - the type of venue lost in the tourist-laden Las Vegas of the present day. Shelly quietly fumes as the young hotshot Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston, Office Space) tries to modernize his shrine into a more profitable enterprise. The old ways drive his business, and it would be a travesty to use gimmicks to draw a lesser clientele. Shelly's mentality allows him to break a friend's kneecap to forgive a gambling debt and still feel as if he's provided a favor.

This friend is Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy), a loser with luck so awful he brings an ill fate to anyone gambling within his proximity. He works for Shelly as a "cooler" who follows the trail of winning guests and quickly changes their fortunes. Bernie needs to only slide his hand across a roulette board or place a small bet in craps for losses to ensue. Macy wonderfully plays Bernie as a glassy-eyed guy who lumbers around the floor with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He appears relatively content with the situation and accepts his fate, but pines on the inside for something substantive and real. Macy has played this type of loser before, but he has rarely made him more understandable than in this film. His scenes with Baldwin reveal two fine actors thriving in high-class material that is often not available to them.

Bernie's world quickly changes when he begins a relationship with Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello, Secret Window), a stunning but hard-luck waitress who doesn't initially seem like the right match. Surprisingly, the couple develops an impressive chemistry easily apparent in their love scenes, which seem more real than the typical Hollywood moments. Bernie lives in a dumpy hotel and has little money, but she seems to care little for these material trappings. Bernie's past also returns with the appearance of his son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) and his pregnant girlfriend, who may want more in Vegas than just some pleasant family time. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have escaped from the father's poor fortunes. When Bernie starts to fall in love, his luck seems bound to change. But will this bliss affect his success as a cooler?

Director and co-writer Wayne Kramer allows the actors to slowly reveal the depths of their characters and doesn't rush the major events too early. The pace is very deliberate and could lose some viewers, but it benefits the participants, especially Baldwin, and makes the eventual revelations more believable. Kramer and co-writer Frank Hannah have crafted a character piece that makes the twists of the plot less important than you might expect. Meeting these interesting figures is more satisfying than their eventual destination, which appears forced and fails to resonate as strongly.

Though its protagonist enjoys a new love, an atmosphere of sadness pervades The Cooler towards the loss of the golden age of Las Vegas. Shelly must eventually conform or lose to the unstoppable forces that aim to destroy the days of old in favor of larger profits. The story concludes with shots of the old casinos falling toward the ground as conglomerates plan to create a Disney-like atmosphere. A new era continues to unfold, and the coolers and small-time bosses no longer have a place in the corporate environment.

Issue 24, June 2004

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