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:: The Cooler

Expect a different kind of love story from writer-director Wayne Kramer’s debut feature film. This gritty, imaginative piece is set amidst the glamour and seediness of Las Vegas where life is a game of chance and the odds always favour the casino bosses and their heavies. Despite the familiar gangster setting, The Cooler is full of originality and balances some pretty confronting scenes with a gentle hero and some laugh out loud moments.

We all have unlucky days, but Bernie Lootz has had a lifetime of them. When he wants cream in his coffee, the jug is empty, he lives in a one-room dump in Vegas, his cat ran away and his estranged son is going off the rails. The wretched Bernie, played by William H. Macy, is pathetic and endearing. He doesn’t wallow in self-pity but accepts his suffering with a quiet inner-strength. His only friend, Shelly (Alec Baldwin) kneecapped him over a bad gambling debt, then set him to work as a “cooler” in his casino to pay it back. Bernie walks the floor at the Shangri-la and freezes hot winning streaks with his contagious bad-luck. Each night he saves the casino millions. His very presence at a table can make people lose.

Then a few days before the debt is settled he meets Natalie (Maria Bello), a new waitress at the casino and against all odds they fall in love. Her love turns out to be the lucky charm he needs and things begin to change. Even his son re-enters his life after so many years. But since Bernie’s job depends on bad luck, good luck may be more trouble than ever. Bernie dreams of a new life with Natalie in a normal town, where you can actually tell day from night, but with a flashy re-development threatening the Shangri-la, it may not be that simple. The volatile and controlling Shelly is not about to let his biggest asset just walk away. Alec Baldwin is truly intimidating and some viewers may find Shelly’s skewed moral code and brutal business tactics overwhelming.

The chemistry between the lovers is what really makes The Cooler memorable. Oscar nominee Macy (Fargo, Boogie Nights, Jurassic Park) and co-star Bello (best known from TV’s ER) bring a rare sincerity and depth to the characters and the relationship between them. Their fun and honest love scenes provide much-needed comic relief. “Those scenes were hot and funny and touching and emotional,” Macy recalls. Without them, this film would be too dark altogether. The visual backdrop is intense rather than appealing. Bleak daylight contrasts sharply with the numbed glow of the gaming room, reflecting the two sides to Bernie’s life. The Cooler, like the Shangri-la, has a little less glitz and glam than its competitors, and perhaps a little more class.