A Lucky Roll
Fine acting heats up tantalizing Las Vegas noir Cooler.
Thursday, January 22, 2004
We all have bad days when nothing goes right. But Bernie Lootz, the protagonist of the wily noir drama The Cooler, is a professional loser, a man whose bad luck is so perpetual and unvarying he’s employed by a Las Vegas casino to cool off hot tables. If a high roller is winning big against the house, Bernie has only to lightly brush his shoulder in passing, or cover the bet with a chip of his own, or merely walk by the table, and the winner’s luck goes sour. His aura of bad luck is so all-consuming it infects everything in its path.
As played by William H. Macy in pathetically dapper suits and silk ties, a curtain of heavy hair weighing down his tired eyes, Bernie is an unlikely hero. He lopes around the floor with a limp and an air of ironic, self-deprecating apology. He knows he’s good at his job, but he also understands that the thing that makes him such a success in his narrow field estranges him from his fellow man. He can muster a certain, dignified aplomb, but he can never expect to be popular.
That the part was written for Macy (who rarely gets a leading role) is a testament to the offbeat vision of filmmaker Wayne Kramer, making his feature-directing debut. Kramer co-wrote the script with Frank Hannah, who came up with the idea from his own experiences gambling in Vegas. Through a winning combination of persuasive acting, clever premise, and intricate plotting, the filmmakers concoct a wry morality play of fortune, love, and redemption.
Bernie works the tables at the Shangri-La Casino on the Vegas strip, an old-fashioned, mob-operated casino run by an old-school mobster named Shelly (Alec Baldwin). Old friends, Shelly once covered a massive debt owed by Bernie, and who now is working off the debt cooling the tables at the Shangri-La.
With only a week left on his contract, Bernie dares to hope for a new life beyond the perpetual night of the glittering strip. He’s not prepared to be “blindsided” by Natalie (Maria Bello), a slightly frazzled but pretty cocktail waitress who unaccountably takes an interest in him. When she invites him for a drink, he can’t help glancing behind him to see if she’s talking to somebody else.
More astonishing still, she not only coaxes him into bed (the love scenes are bracing in their ribald comic honesty), she moves into his cheap but tidy motel apartment. Bernie is certain he’s “gonna pay for this”—his unexpected happiness—but surrenders to it anyway.
Meanwhile, Shelly is chafing under the scrutiny of his boss and a couple of sharp young suits who are out to upgrade his operation. Their plans include a fancy high-tech architectural face-lift, a hip-swiveling new lounge act (Joey Fatone, from N’Sync) to replace a fading crooner (Paul Sorvino), and a CD of background music in the casino that broadcasts the subsonic message “lose.” Appalled by these attempts to tamper with his “paradise,” Shelly plays along while continuing to do things in his own kneecap-bashing style—which includes taking action when lovestruck Bernie loses his ability to cool. Once “Kryptonite on a stick,” a happy Bernie makes gamblers win even bigger. And that’s not good for the house.
Baldwin is terrific as Shelly. He conveys the wistful sense of courtliness that Shelly perceives as “classy” behavior, as well as the lightning rages of a career mobster. Belligerent and conniving, Baldwin gives the character subtle grace notes; listening to Sorvino’s story of an old lion driven out of the pride when his era is over, he cracks, “Nature’s got some sense of humor, huh?”
The surreal neon Vegas nightscape, clever dissolves between scenes that don’t call attention to themselves, and a brooding bluesy score by Mark Isham keep us intrigued. Nasty, funny, and touching, this is a jazzy cocktail of a movie that maintains its fizz right to the provocative end.
The Cooler [3 1/2 stars]
Directed by Wayne Kramer
Starring William H. Macy, Maria Bello, and Alec Baldwin.
(Rated R, 101 min.)