21 August 2004 | Buddy-51
outstanding performances in a flawed but good film
William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin and Maria Bello give unforgettable performances in 'The Cooler,' a moody tale of high stakes gambling on the Vegas Strip. Baldwin plays Shelley Kaplow, a casino operator steeped in nostalgia who hates what has become of his beloved city and prefers to do business the old-fashioned way (i.e. breaking a leg or two or even rubbing a person out if the situation calls for it). Shelley is also so intensely superstitious that he's hired a 'cooler' to rein in any gambler who starts winning a bit too much against the house. Macy is the 'cooler,' a man named Bernie who's been a loser all his life. It is Shelley's contention that all Bernie has to do is stand next to a gambler on a hot streak and that player's luck will immediately turn cold. And it works. Bernie is like a dark cloud roaming the floor of the casino, bringing despair and depression wherever he goes. The problem for Bernie is that, although he makes a living doing this, he has virtually no self-esteem left. He truly believes that he is a bad luck charm, an impression he carries over into his personal life as well. Enter Natalie Belisario, a sweet, beautiful cocktail waitress at the casino, who is assigned by Shelley to accompany Bernie on his treks around the room. What none of them expect least of all Bernie and Natalie - is that the two of them will wind up falling in love with each other and that this happy turnabout in Bernie's personal life will extend to the professional arena as well. Bernie's new role at work as a wandering leprechaun, dispensing good luck and fortune in his wake, is not, of course, a positive thing for business. Thus, Shelley feels compelled to step in and wrest control of the situation, any way he can.
The screenplay uses the gambling scene in Vegas as a metaphor for life. The film, written by Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer and directed by Kramer, shows that achieving happiness is really all about taking chances, laying down our bets and going for the big score even when all the odds are against us. And nothing in the film underscores that theme more than the relationship between Bernie and Natalie. In fact, Bernie's final act is really one giant spin of the wheel that manages to pay off. After he's taken his chance and beaten the house (and not just at the craps table), he is Bad Luck incarnate no more. Yet, in many ways, the script is so heavily symbolic - so rife with contrived allegory and neatly lined-up parallelism that it almost ends up derailing the film in the second half. On the positive side, Bernie and Natalie make a compelling romantic couple, as she attempts to build up his confidence and make him see his own self-worth. Macy and Bello do a beautiful job capturing the essence of these two lost souls who find strength in each other's weaknesses. In addition, Baldwin paints a chilling portrait of a man who is smooth and suave on the surface, yet so ruthless underneath that he will literally stop at nothing to get what he wants. The dialogue is sharp, abrasive and insightful and the insider view of casino operations is, as always, fascinating to watch. The film also captures the evolutionary struggle Vegas itself has been undergoing over the years. Shelley is like an animal facing imminent extinction, as the Vegas he yearns for the one run by syndicate money for hardcore gamblers, truly the last outpost in a fading frontier where a fistfight or a gun battle could settle any argument makes way for the new Vegas of glitzy mega-casinos and family-oriented Disney-esque attractions.
What undercuts the film in the second half is its falling for its own fantastical premise. The idea that one person can spread good or bad luck depending on his mood is fine for a ruse, but when the screenplay itself begins to endorse that view, the film loses both grit and credibility. The final sequences, in particular, have a feeling of desperation to them, as if the filmmakers couldn't come up with a viable ending, so they turned, quite literally, to Lady Luck to get them out of their predicament. The problem, essentially, is that 'The Cooler' starts off as a realistic drama, then wanders off into rueful fantasy. It makes the film more 'clever' in the long run, I suppose - though I, for one, would have preferred a more consistently life-like approach and a more believable resolution.
This is not to in any way denigrate the brilliant performances of the three leads or to minimize the many elements of quality that make up the film. Despite its flaws, 'The Cooler' is a compelling human drama that, if nothing else, will make you think twice before you grab all those winnings off the crap table.