Las Vegas is not an unpopular setting for a movie, but how often do filmmakers think about the city, and not just use it as a fitting background for comedy, sleaze or heists? One might argue that Vegas is shallow, making it compatible with the breezy capering of Ocean’s 11 or the desperation in Leaving Las Vegas (or the crash-landing in Con Air). Those movies could be set elsewhere, but Vegas is a good fit.
Wayne Kramer’s directing debut, The Cooler, though, couldn’t be set anywhere else. In it, William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a sad sack with such miserable luck that, following massive gambling losses, he’s found work as a “cooler” at an old-school Vegas casino: he quietly walks around the room, spreading his bad luck and “cooling” winning streaks. The movie takes this conceit as wonderfully literally as others have taken the “magic” of Vegas (or New York, or anywhere). At the beginning of the film, Bernie needs only to pat the shoulder of a high roller, and the house wins again.
The house is personified by Shelly (Alec Baldwin), an old “friend” of Bernie’s who runs the casino. In a prominent subplot, Shelly is pressured to change his casino, in keeping with the new, family-friendly Las Vegas; Shelly prefers the traditional activities, like beating people up with pipes. Bernie wants to get out of town, and Shelly refuses to leave. The Cooler boils down to a story of two opposing gamblers with differing ideas about when to pack it in.
The filmmakers are also interested in the nature of luck, be it a product of destiny or psychology. As Bernie begins a relationship with Natalie (Maria Bello), a waitress at the casino, he stops feeling like such a loser. And when a cooler starts to feel lucky, well… that’s when we’re especially tickled that he’s played by Macy, whose contributions to the film are enormous both as an actor and indie-movie persona.
Just as a familiarity with the changing shape of Las Vegas is important here, the movie subtly builds on previous William H. Macy roles; it shows us Bernie’s losing streak, yes, but Macy’s rich gallery of losers and malcontents are like an unofficial extra backstory. His sad, familiar face (and particularly ill-coifed hair-neatly combed into ugliness) fills in the rest. There are a few close-ups where the depth of his sadness and confusion, buried under his professional courtesy, are visible through his darting, glancing eyes. It’s a terrific performance.
Terrific performances are no stranger to Macy, and it’s not shocking (though it is gratifying) to see such good work from the less consistent but talented Baldwin, who savors the script’s juiciest dialogue. I must admit, though, that I wasn’t quite expecting such strong work from Bello, maybe because the last time she played a waitress was in Coyote Ugly. There, like the rest of the cast, she was prone to unpleasant posing: the tough chick as a growling supermodel. Here, she is stripped of bad dialogue and Maxim lighting; her combination of vulnerability and moxie could be a cliché, but Bello’s Natalie is no fantasy girl; this is no small feat when a younger woman is romancing an older man. We actually believe that she’s a good match for Bernie.
And so The Cooler is one of the year’s best movie romances. Bernie and Natalie’s relationship isn’t much less rushed-into than many of the couplings in, say, Love Actually, but its low-key charm is more adult, and often more touching, too. The movie even does sex right—it’s fairly explicit (the film had to be trimmed after garnering an NC-17), but also tender and honest, and all the sexier for those qualities. The juxtaposition of the burgeoning relationship between Bernie and Natalie and the dying one between the characters and their city is especially poignant.
With its attention to nuances on both an individual and citywide scale, The Cooler is the best written movie I’ve seen in awhile. Its screenplay (by Kramer and writing partner Frank Hannah) seems almost Midas-like, for awhile, the way every subject it tackles (love, sex, gambling, Vegas) comes up a winner.
Ironically, this winning streak trips the movie up a little in its second half with repetition: there’s slightly too much give-and-take between Bernie and Shelly, too many twists and untwists, and too much time given to Shelly’s dilemma. Such are the differences between an instant classic and a movie that is simply winning.