But one day, he does. And sure enough, it costs him everything. Bernie loses all his money and can't repay his debt to the Shangri-La casino ,owned by his friend Shelly (Alec Baldwin). Instead of killing Bernie, Shelly takes a baseball bat to his knee and forces him to work at the casino until his debt is repaid. What good does Bernie do at the casino? Well, Bernie's bad luck is contagious. With his mere presence at a poker table, he immediately turns winners into losers. "I do it by being myself," he explains. "People get next to me and their luck turns." (Shades of Intacto.)
Days before fulfilling his debt to Shelly, Bernie's luck begins to change. He meets Natalie (Maria Bello), a new cocktail waitress at the Shangri-La, and begins a relationship with her. After a night of raucous sex, Bernie falls in love. Feeling good for the first time in years, Bernie begins to pass good luck onto gamblers at the Shangri-La. As Shelly grows increasingly angry at the change of events, Bernie and Natalie must decide where to go with their relationship.
Although the Vegas backdrop gives it a more complex flavor, at its core, The Cooler is merely an unlikely love story. It's not a conventional Hollywood romance, however, because writers Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer (who also directs) understand that love is more than just red-hot passion and steamy sex, but a process that often happens unexpectedly, and for unexpected reasons. It doesn't always occur "at first sight" like many movies like to believe. Attraction is not always what draws people together, either; sometimes, people connect with each unexpectedly, and out of grief and despair.
These human dimensions make Bernie and Natalie look as if they are real people in an actual relationship; it doesn't feel like another contrived Hollywood cliché. Even the film's villain feels like a real person. Shelly is cruel and violent, but he is not all fire and brimstone. Throughout the movie, he demonstrates strong ethics: He has a deep respect for traditions of the past and feels as if as he must remain loyal to them as he looks into the future.
Along with the crispest of screenplays, The Cooler offers some of the best performances you will see this year, and that's saying a lot since the camera is brutal in its use of close-ups. As always, William H. Macy commits to his character so wholeheartedly, you can never tell that he's acting; we fall in love with Bernie -- another one of Macy's lovable oddballs -- from the instant we see him stumble across the casino floor for the first time. Maria Bello's soul, earnestness, and million-dollar smile make her one of the most unforgettable heroines to hit the screen all year. She really cares for and respects her character, and it shows. The biggest surprise, however, is from Alec Baldwin, who has played villains in the past, but never this convincingly. Here, he loses himself in Shelly, providing the character with both a menacing evil and a subtle vulnerability. This is one of the strongest performances of Baldwin's career, loaded with emotion and ferocity.
Kramer caused quite a controversy with the nudity, which was edited to avoid the NC-17 rating. I saw the uncut version, which contains some of the most explicit sex I have encountered in mainstream cinema. While sex does have its place in the movie, Kramer takes it a little too far, and much of the candid nudity feels awkward and gratuitous.
But those are merely superficial issues. The Cooler effortlessly hides such flaws behind an enormously entertaining style and marvelous substance. It captures both the atmosphere and energy of Las Vegas while allowing its memorable characters to prowl through the slick, sophisticated environment. Because of the skillful direction and unique premise, The Cooler is the kind of movie that will stick with you long after you leave the theater.
Two commentary tracks (both oddly featuring Kramer) highlight the DVD (it's the R-rated cut, not the NC-17 version), along with a pair of making-of vignettes. Highly recommended.
Run time: 101 mins
In Theaters: Friday 27th February 2004
Box Office USA: $8.2M
Distributed by: Lions Gate Films
Production compaines: Pierce/Williams Entertainment, ContentFilm
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Fresh: 131 Rotten: 40
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Wayne Kramer
Starring: William H. Macy as Bernie Lootz, Alec Baldwin as Shelly Kaplow, Maria Bello as Natalie Belisario, Shawn Hatosy as Mikey, Paul Sorvino as Buddy Stafford, Estella Warren as Charlene, Ron Livingston as Larry Sokolov, Joey Fatone as Johnny Cappella
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