Maria Bello (left), Alec Baldwin (center), and William H. Macy (right) co-star in The Cooler. (courtesy photo)

The Shangri-La casino wants to keep a limping disaster down and gambling unsanitary

Two types of Vegas movie compete for control of The Cooler. One is, like Leaving Las Vegas, a gritty tale of pathetic losers whose lives unravel amid the kitschy glitz of a soulless desert metropolis. The other is, like Honeymoon in Vegas, an allegorical entertainment that stacks its deck and loads its dice in service to an improbable plot. Unable to decide where to place his chips, director Wayne Kramer hedges his bets and bungles the jackpot. The Cooler is film noir tarted up with garish crayons.

The director of the Shangri-La casino is faced with a similar decision. Three wise guys from the East arrive to tell Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin) that he has to change his style of business. Trying to put its sleazy history behind it in order to maximize prosperity, the new Las Vegas has packaged itself as a gaming theme park for the entire family. Shangri-La, which Shelly has run for the past 16 years, is a relic of the past, an outpost of thugs and molls and schmaltzy old crooners. Even the wallpaper needs to be brought up to date, insists Larry Sokolov (Livingston), a smug young M.B.A. with a plan to optimize profits. "It comes a time to decide if you're running a museum or you're running a casino," Larry announces. Convinced that the old Vegas is the authentic and enduring one, Shelly resists the sterile new ways and rails against the Disneyfication of his racket.

At the same time, one of Shelly's employees, Bernie Lootz (Macy), has given notice of his intention to leave in less than a week. Bernie is the film's eponymous Cooler, a geek of ill fortune hired by the casino to poison winning streaks. To Shelly, Bernie, a gimpy nerd who dresses in polyester and still plays vinyl records in his wretched room at the Better Life motel, is "shitty luck incarnate." He assigns this limping disaster to stand beside winning gamblers and infect them with his bad vibrations. Shelly is convinced that if Bernie, "kryptonite on a stick," leaves Shangri-La, the house will lose millions.

Dir. Wayne Kramer; writ. Frank Hannah, Wayne Kramer; feat. William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Shawn Hatosy, Ron Livingston, Paul Sorvino, Estella Warren (R)
But Bernie's fate unexpectedly changes after a few torrid sexual encounters with a cocktail waitress who is also on Shelly's payroll. Bernie can hardly believe that beautiful Natalie Belisario (Bello) would fall for him, and the viewer will find it harder to believe that Bernie's luck has turned completely; he is now endowed with a Midas touch, and anyone he stands beside wins big against the house. The Cooler is the story of Shelly's anxious attempt to cool Bernie back down, to keep him at the casino, and to keep Shangri-La from turning into paradise lost, the sanitary factory of wagering that the new money men would make it.

It requires a spry leap of faith to accept the movie's dubious premise and its preposterous ending. But the performances, by Macy, Baldwin, Bello, and others, are uncommonly affecting. The Cooler is best viewed as a study in the dynamics of loneliness and resignation. "I never met anyone who was so down on themselves," says Natalie about Bernie, who, until she enters his life, accepts his role as damp rag in a Vegas tinder box. Bernie is even grateful to Shelly for having broken his knee with a baseball bat, on account of an unpaid debt. Although the screenplay conceives the story in gambling terms, Bernie's infusion of self-respect is not a matter of luck.

Like The Godfather II, except in a comic key, The Cooler is an elegy for the passing of the heroic age of villainy, when men still killed other men with bare hands and eyes unaverted. A strangely sympathetic figure, Shelly is a brutal tyrant who takes a personal, not necessarily benign, interest in each of his employees. The efficiency experts fated to displace him are no less cruel for lacking souls. A portrait of Las Vegas as the arena of general cultural conflict between individuality and the corporation, The Cooler is, in its own mixed style, torn between the Hollywood of gaudy buccaneers and an industry of circumspect accountants. Neither wins. •

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