164 – The Cooler

Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy), as his name might imply, is a loser. A hapless, hopeless sad sack. Bernie’s job at the Shangri-La casino is to impart bad luck on gamblers who are enjoying good luck. It seems pretty easy, doesn’t it? Guy gets on a run at the craps table. Bernie stands next to him, maybe plays once, and suddenly the guy craps out. Saves the casino a lot of money, making a happy camper out of Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin).

But Bernie’s had enough of the casino life, and he’s leaving in a week. But do you seriously think Shelly’s going to let him walk out? Bernie’s the best “cooler” the casino has, maybe the best ever. Shelly needs Bernie to help keep down the amount paid out to customers. So Shelly asks barmaid Natalie (Maria Bello) to look after Bernie, to make him feel good, to pick up his spirits so he doesn’t leave the Shangri-La.

It’s the best-laid plan of a rat, in this case. Predictably, Natalie falls for Bernie. Oh, hell hath no fury like a corrupt casino owner scorned, and Shelly plots his revenge in order to protect his investment. Oh, and while fending off the “new age” ideas of Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston of Office Space), who’s brought in by Shelly financial backers to bring the casino into the modern era.

Whenever I see William H. Macy in a movie, I know for absolute certain that he’s going to turn in a perfect, nuanced performance. Even in bad movies, he stands out as a true professional. But his is not the only strong portrayal here. Baldwin, who received an Oscar nomination, is aces as the vicious, conflicted, but never out-of-control Shelly. Even when the situation looks like Shelly has no idea what to do, Shelly himself looks like he has all of the answers. Almost as good as Baldwin is Bello, a Tea Leoni lookalike, but with talent. Hers is a fantastic performance; she really held her own against Macy and Baldwin.

The movie is fairly well paced, without much lag, and the storyline moves along amiably; there are no extraneous storylines (save, perhaps, for a bit with Paul Sorvino as an aging lounge singer). The tone is dark and moody, although it’s splattered with flecks of hope throughout. Hope, you see, is the underlying theme: hope that Bernie can escape Shelly, hope that Bernie can be with Natalie.

The Cooler: ***

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