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COOLER, THE (director/writer: Wayne Kramer; screenwriter: Frank Hannah; cinematographer: Jim Whitaker; editor: Arthur Coburn; music: Mark Isham/Diana Krall; cast: William Macy (Bernie Lootz), Maria Bello (Natalie Belisario), Alec Baldwin (Shelly Kaplow), Shawn Hatosy (Mikey), Ron Livingston (Larry Sokolov), Paul Sorvino (Buddy Stafford), Estella Warren (Charlene), Arthur J. Nascarella (Nicky ‘Fingers’ Bonnatto), Joey Fatone (Johnny Cappella); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Michael A. Pierce/Sean Furst; Lions Gate Films; 2003)
“Fell apart because the senseless rags-to-riches story and the weak formulaic characterization of cliché Las Vegas figures never added up to much.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Wayne Kramer directs and co-writes with Frank Hannah this improbable comedy/crime drama/romance. It had one-bright idea about a Las Vegas casino “cooler” — whose mere presence turns winners at the gaming tables into losers. But that concept fell apart because the senseless rags-to-riches story and the weak formulaic characterization of cliché Las Vegas figures never added up to much.

Bernie Lootz (Macy) is the 50-year-old born loser, who works as a “cooler” in his best friend Shelly’s (Alec Baldwin) old-school Las Vegas casino — the Golden Shangri-La. When Bernie once ran up an enormous gambling debt at the casino that Shelly has managed for the last 16 years, the gangster spared his life after he broke his kneecap with a baseball bat and left him with a permanent limp. Bernie has been grateful ever since, as over the years he worked to pay back the debt by becoming the best “cooler” in the business. Whenever there’s a hot high roller, Bernie gets the call to either play or walk by that table and immediately his bad luck becomes contagious. This old-fashioned way of cutting down on the chance of big gambling losses for the house doesn’t impress, anymore, the gangster owner of the casino, Nicky (Nascarella). Nicky believes that it’s time to get in step with the other more modern family-run casinos on the strip and run a theme-park operation. To get more corporate and retool this out-of-step casino, Nicky brings along Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), a turd-like humorless young Harvard grad, who suggests giving the has-been older junkie lounge singer, Buddy (Sorvino), the gate and hiring someone with more pep like Johnny Cappella to appeal to a more suburban crowd, getting new wallpaper, and hiring waitresses with bigger boobs.

If that wasn’t enough of a challenge to keep the slightly deranged Shelly in high blood pressure, Bernie lays it on his old pal that he will split from the Vegas scene in seven days when his debt will be all paid up. But, alas, along comes a sexy 27-year-old blonde cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello) to get her lovely hooks into the loser. They bed down in his dumpy motel. After Natalie reawakens his lost sex drive, they have this “brilliant” and “endearing” conversation. Natalie: “Bernie, you’ve got a great cock.” Bernie: Thank you.” Bernie has found love. The question now becomes if he will stay in sin city.

Ghosts from the past come back to haunt Bernie, as he runs into his good-for-nothing long lost son Mikey (Hatosy), who is in town with his pregnant girlfriend Charlene. The chance meeting between father and son, is played as a symbolic contrivance to show what happens when there’s no love in a relationship and the bad genes are passed on. But the heavy-handed reunion scenes had no drama, sensitivity, feelings, logic, or comedy.

That ludicrous plot development is only topped in absurdity by the budding romance between the two hard luck Vegas co-workers, as it turns real and wannabe showgirl Natalie becomes his “Lady Luck.” Bernie’s new found luck puts him in great jeopardy, as he tries to face his new reality by changing his life path. The obstacles he faces come from both the new-school corporate fucks and the old-school Las Vegas hard-liners. It boils over in a contrived ending that matches in triteness any of the many other stale films about Las Vegas that failed to remain memorable.

Macy plays his usual drab character role with his usual professional skill, while Baldwin provides the fervor as the outrageous poster boy for the gangsters running Vegas. Bello makes for an attractive sex object, who trades on the porn star qualities she brings to the table.

It was impossible for me to feel sympathy for any of these ill-conceived characters, especially since everything is so illogical and unimportant. Even Macy’s humanism seems disingenuous. It’s a crap-out, as the filmmaker has rolled a seven rather than his point. There’s not much about this film to be taken seriously, especially the nonsensical battle between old-school and new-school Las Vegas traditions. If this film also aimed to be a comedy, that was sorely unrealized.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”