Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is the broken mirror of Nevada, the black cat of Las Vegas, the dropped salt of the Strip, the number 13 of the Shangri-La casino. He’s the ultimate loser, bad luck incarnated, “Kryptonite on a stick”. You put him in a room and the temperature drops 10 degrees, babies start crying and women get headaches. Bernie is so unlucky that everyone in his periphery becomes infected with his bad karma.
Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) is the bitter manager of the Shangri-La, a once glorious establishment now at the mercy of spineless corporate worms like this little Harvard prick (Ron Livingston) that’s been sent to tell him how to run his own damn casino. Vegas “used to have class, like a gorgeous high-class hooker with an exclusive clientele”, but now it’s turned into a “Disneyland mook fest”, “a cheap fat whore hiding behind too much make-up”. Shelly wants to hold on to his old-school ways like old sweaty Italian entertainers, cheaters getting their legs broken with a baseball bat and coolers. As far as coolers go, Bernie is the cat’s pajamas: he just has to stroll past gamblers on a roll to jinx them out of it. He’s the best at what he does, yet he wants out, to the great dismay of Shelly…
“The Cooler” is the latest in a series of more or less gritty gambling themed films. We’ve seen it all before and better, be it the over the hill but still tough casino manager of Casino, the father figure having to deal with a young man’s mistakes, Hard Eight-style, or the redeeming power of love that was also displayed in Leaving Las Vegas.
Director and co-writer Wayne Kramer knows the formula: semi-elaborate camera moves à la Scorsese, hard-boiled dialogue, a little sex, a little violence, a little jazz… There’s a solid cast, too. William H. Macy makes an art out of playing schmucks, Alec Baldwin can play ballsy fuck-this, fuck-that types like the best of them, Maria Bello is engaging and sexy as a cocktail waitress you just know is bearing painful secrets, and Shawn Hatosy, Estella Warren, Paul Sorvino and even Joey Fatone (of *NSYNC infamy) do good of smaller parts. Yet Kramer is just not Scorsese, or PT Anderson, or Mike Figgis and “The Cooler”, while not unenjoyable, is not particularly memorable.