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The Cooler (2003)
Rated R

Starring: William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, and Maria Bello

out of

Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is the unluckiest man in Las Vegas. His luck is so bad that casino owner Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) employs him as a "cooler," someone who's mere presence makes winning tables go cold. Bernie has been working off a large gambling debt to Shelly by working at the Golden Shangri-La. He's only days away from paying off the debt and announces to Shelly that he will be leaving town when he does. Bernie is tired of Las Vegas and longs to go somewhere we he can "tell night from day."

Bernie's life changes when he meets cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello) at the Shangri-La's bar. Shortly after Natalie and Bernie begin talking, a relationship blossoms and Bernie's bad luck begins to change. Instead of "cooling" the tables at the Shangri-La, Bernie's presence has the opposite effect. Shelly is confused and angered by this change of luck because it's costing him large sums of money paid out as winnings.

Further complicating matters is that Shelly's (ahem) "business partners" in the Shangri-La have hired Larry Sokolov (Rob Livingston) as a consultant. Sokolov wants to eliminate the casino's old-school trappings and replace them with more modern accoutrements in an effort to make more money. Shelly resists these "improvements" which include replacing the talent in the casino's lounge, playing subliminal messages on the casino floor, and getting rid of "coolers".

With Shelly in danger of losing control of how his business is run and Bernie looking forward to life after the casino, big changes are in store for both men. Will Shelly let Bernie just walk away from the casino or will he try to eliminate his newfound luck?

The Cooler somehow flew under the radar of many moviegoers when it was released in late 2003. Although Alec Baldwin was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Shelly Kaplow, not much attention has been paid to the film since then. While it might sound like it would only appeal to people who enjoyed movies like Casino or Goodfellas, The Cooler has a much broader appeal thanks to a few key elements.

First is the performance of William H. Macy as the lonesome, sad sack Bernie. This is a role tailor-made for his unusual appearance and quirky mannerisms. Although Bernie is a loser, Macy's performance transforms him into someone that the audience can relate to as he tries to change his life for the better.

Second is the direction of Wayne Kramer. Whether it's a shot of gambling chips turning into Alka Seltzer tablets in an inventive transition or simply a well-timed reflection in a mirror, there are a fair amount of understated but subtly brilliant sequences in The Cooler. When violence erupts on-screen, Kramer keeps it limited to short, effective bursts that are far more unsettling than longer sequences would likely be.

And. third, there is real reason to see The Cooler: Alec Baldwin. His performance as the conflicted and slimy Shelly deserved the Academy Award nomination it received. (He lost the award to Tim Robbins in Mystic River.) Baldwin simply chews up the scenery every time he's on-screen. I'm a little confused by the recent talk of Baldwin's recent "comeback" when he was turning in work as good as this three years before "30 Rock" went on the air.

The script by Kramer and Frank Hannah combines elements that, individually, sound like they might not work. Case in point is William H. Macy as a love interest. Adding Alec Baldwin as an old school mob casino owner, a subplot about Bernie's low-life son, and scenes that highlight the collision of old school Vegas with the city's "Disneyfication" make for an odd combination but, somehow, it all congeals into an extremely engaging film.

Trivia: This film originally received an NC-17 rating and was re-cut to achieve an R. The details of the rating dispute are documented in the film This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), which shows some of the deleted footage. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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