With his wistful, boyish middle-aged looks, William H. Macy is perfect casting for a loser like "The Cooler's" Bernie Lootz. He's a luckless ex-gambler who is paying off a massive indebtedness to the Golden Shangri-La Casino by hanging around the tables, cooling off winning streaks by his sheer hangdog presence. "The Cooler," however, is a beguiling Las Vegas romantic fable, a fairy tale really, that has a different destiny in store for Bernie.
Director Wayne Kramer and co-writer Frank Hannah pull off a sleight-of-hand trick here, playing a gritty surface reality against dark Vegas mythology and getting away with it through a combination of shrewd, witty characterization and sure-footed storytelling skills.
"The Cooler" stirs up hokum, clichés and stereotypes in regard to Las Vegas and its people with such an easy style and finesse that it's easy to go along with everything that happens. "The Cooler" risks the preposterous to yield surprising poignancy and considerable pleasure in watching everything unfold. For all its bleak moments, "The Cooler" could be summed up as "Leaving Las Vegas" lite.
Six years earlier, Bernie had markers all over town — not just the Shangri-La — when his old friend Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), the casino's director, came to his rescue by turning him into a cooler. But now Bernie has only one week left to go before he is free and clear and can't wait to get out of town. But then he takes notice of a beautiful, slightly frazzled casino cocktail waitress (Maria Bello); more important, she takes notice of him.
Much to his shock, this forlorn man in his ill-fitting suits, too-wide ties and dingy loafers is taking this much-younger, sexy-vulnerable woman back to his seedy — how else would it be? — room at the Bettor Luck Motel.
In the meantime, the Shangri-La's partners, headed by the sleek Nicky "Fingers" Bonnatto (Arthur J. Nacarella), have just lined up Larry Sokolow (Ron Livingston), a cocky, rude Harvard Business School grad, to shake up the Shangri-La, one of the last of the old-style downtown Fremont Street casinos, traditional home for serious gamblers.
Shelly's pal Buddy Stafford (Paul Sorvino), a fading longtime headliner at the Shangri-La showroom, tells Shelly a story about how the chief lion in a pride is inevitably driven out by a younger contender, but Shelly doesn't realize the parable applies to him as well as to Buddy.
Amid escalating plot developments a tender, desperate love story unfolds between Bernie and Bello's Natalie, whose own dreams have fizzled, while Shelly starts resisting changes to the Shangri-La, which the partners want to replace with a mega-hotel and casino.
With her stunning figure and lovely features, it's hard to understand how Natalie failed to make the grade as a showgirl, but Bello persuasively shows us a young woman sufficiently wounded and needy to be willing to give a schlub like Bernie a second look. Macy is a revelation, first in scorching love scenes with Bello and as a man undergoing a wholly unexpected transformation.
With his compelling portrayal of Shelly, former leading man Baldwin continues to affirm that he is now one of the most versatile character actors on the screen. In Shelly, Baldwin shows us a man in whom the sentimental and the brutal go hand in hand, a Neanderthal clinging to the past because he has nothing else going for him, a smooth operator in whom violence lurks just beneath the surface.
James Whitaker's sooty, high-contrast images are just right for the film's harsh surface while Mark Isham's lush vintage score, heavy on the brass, with Isham himself on trumpet, reinforces the film's romantic undertow.
Production designer Toby Corbett, drawing extensively upon Reno's Golden Phoenix Hotel for garish vintage atmosphere, creates a sleazily seductive world on the screen that goes a long way in making the incredible credible. Ellen Greene's kindly, peroxided casino bartender is typical of the film's deftly etched ensemble supporting cast.
In a notably confident feature debut, Kramer demonstrates a surefire skill in eliciting genuine emotional impact amid make-believe.
MPAA rating: R for strong sexuality, violence, language and some drug use.
Times guidelines: Violence and love-making are quite graphic.
William H. Macy ... Bernie Lootz
Alec Baldwin ... Shelly Kaplow
Maria Bello ... Natalie Belisario
Paul Sorvino ... Buddy Stafford
Shawn Hatosy ... Mikey Lootz
A Lions Gate Films presentation. Director Wayne Kramer. Producers Michael Pearce, Sean Furst. Executive producers Edward R. Pressman, John R. Schmidt, Alessandro Cohen, Brett Morrrison, Robert Gryphon, Joe Madden, Bryan Furst. Screenplay by Frank Hannah & Wayne Kramer. Cinematographer James Whitaker. Editor Arthur Coburn. Music Mark Isham. Costumes Kristin M. Burke. Production designer Toby Corbett. Set decorator Alice Burke. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
In selected theaters.