Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is the unluckiest guy in Las Vegas. And he makes a living at it, being the Shangri-La Casino’s ‘cooler’, bringing bad luck to anyone on a winning streak. All he has to do is touch the dice, or make his presence felt at a table, and his employer, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) who runs the Casino, is laughing. Some years ago, Shelly saved Bernie’s life covered his gambling debts, and Bernie is committed to paying his debt. Now Bernie is counting the days before he can leave Vegas, and suddenly things seem different since he has met Natalie (Maria Bello), a new cocktail waitress with a sympathetic ear.
Review by Louise Keller:
A life affirming story about luck and love, The Cooler is a satisfying film about a loser who finds lady luck. South African director Wayne Kramer collaborates with Scottish screenwriter Frank Hannah to create this engrossing and emotionally uplifting tale, while William H. Macy and Maria Bello bring integrity and credibility to the two central roles.
With its laid back soundtrack, we are lulled the rhythms of Vegas, as we are surrounded by the flashing neon lights, the limos, the corridors of poker machines, skimpily dressed cocktail waitresses, topless showgirls, bars, broads, booze and armies of hopefuls armed with bravado. Then we meet Mr Unlucky himself. He looks the part, with trousers that are a little too long, and a crumpled look that extends to his creased face, pleading the sorrow in his heart. Everything Bernie Lootz touches turns to dust: he is the epitome of a loser. The fact that his sleazy neighbour at the Better Life Motel, where he lives, has loud sex every night with a dime-a-dozen hooker, is a constant reminder of his solitary state. As Bernie lies on his bed, the wall shakes from the bumps and grinds emanating from the ecstasy next door.
But Bernie’s luck seems to change when he meets Natalie. Sinatra croons Luck Be a Lady in the background as he takes her home for a night of passion. ‘It’s ok, I’ve had worse,’ she reassures him when their lovemaking fails to make the earth move. The love scenes are candidly shot, and there is little that’s left to the imagination with naked bodies on display, the lens often resting on body parts with unflattering angles. The result is overwhelmingly intimate, and we feel the very close bond that Bernie develops with Natalie. Our heart aches for Bernie, who has given up on himself; we watch while he blossoms with Natalie’s encouragement. When Macy’s Bernie says ‘I love you, Natalie – I really, really love you,’ we believe him from the very bottom of his sincere and decent heart. Suddenly the impossible happens and Bernie’s luck turns around: the vibes he exudes reflect the hope in his heart.
Alex Baldwin gives one of his best performances of recent times, as the brutal, power-hungry casino owner, accustomed to manipulating everything and everyone around him. His low-life Shelley is a pathetic character, reliant on violence and dirty tricks, and whose only friend is an amber-coloured liquid that comes in a bottle. The entire cast is superb: Paul Sorvino as the tragic, addicted lounge singer, Ron Livingston’s Larry Sokolov, who is looking to change the face of the Shangri-La, Sean Hatosy’s slimy bad-news son Mikey and Estella Warren as his pregnant girlfriend Charlene.
What a contrast between Shelley’s thuggery and Bernie’s decency. ‘I’m the only mirror you’ll ever need,’ Bernie tells Natalie. ‘Just look into my eyes.’ The stakes become higher and higher, and by the time Bernie is holding a wad of notes and is ready to risk it all, we are absolutely rooting for him. Our hearts are in our mouth as he throws the dice as he takes a gamble on paradise. But the road to paradise is not without bumps and the way Kramer handles the film’s conclusion is restrained and pleasing. The Cooler is a treat of a film, tinged with an abundance of truth and poignancy.
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COOLER, THE (MA)
CAST: William H. Macy Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Shawn Hatosy, Ron Livingston, Paul Sorvino, Estella Warren
PRODUCER: Sean Furst, Michael Pierce
DIRECTOR: Wayne Kramer
SCRIPT: Frank Hannah, Wayne Kramer
CINEMATOGRAPHER: James Whitaker
EDITOR: Arthur Coburn
MUSIC: Mark Isham
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tony Corbett
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: UIP
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 20, 2004
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