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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Cooler

A more upbeat version of Leaving Las Vegas

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 3, 2003 -- “The Cooler” is what “Leaving Las Vegas” should have been. Instead of a hooker falling for a suicidal alcoholic, we have a hooker falling for a gambling addict. “The Cooler” is more upbeat than “Leaving Las Vegas” (as if anything could be more downbeat), and it has some humor, too. This is a terrific movie, with great performances and a sharp script. It is one of the best movies of 2003.

The title refers to Bernie Lootz (played by William H. Macy of “Focus”). Bernie is a guy with such lousy luck that all he has to do is stand in the presence of a hot gambler on a winning streak, and the gambler's luck cools off. Bernie works for the Shangri-La casino run by his friend Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin of “State and Main”). His job is to cool off hot gamblers in the casino. He has almost paid off his huge gambling debt to Kaplow and plans to leave town at the end of the week. Kaplow has other ideas. He has made millions off of Bernie and wants to keep him at the Shangri-La. Then Bernie's luck changes. He falls in love with a beautiful girl who works at the casino, Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello of “Auto Focus”), and miraculously, she falls in love with Bernie.

Suddenly, Bernie has lost his talent as a cooler. Instead of cooling off lucky gamblers, he makes them luckier. Kaplow is furious. He figures Natalie is Bernie's new good luck charm so he pressures her to leave town. Kaplow also works on a scheme to keep Bernie at the casino for another few years. Kaplow likes things at the Shangri-La the way they are, but he is under a lot of pressure to change from one of the club's mob owners, Nicky 'Fingers' Bonnatto (Arthur J. Nascarella of “In the Cut”). Bonnatto has brought in a young management assistant to shake things up, Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston). Sokolov wants to replace the Shangri-La's aging lounge singer Buddy Stafford (Paul Sorvino of “Bulworth”) with the hot young talent of Johnny Capella (Joey Fatone of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and the singing group 'Nsync). Kaplow resists all proposed changes. Further complicating matters is the arrival of Bernie's estranged son and pregnant wife. It turns out that Bernie's last week at the Shangri-La is turning out to be much more eventful than all the long years that went before.

Writer-director Wayne Kramer (“Crossing Over”), despite a lack of experience, does a good job with the film. The script, by Kramer and Frank Hannah is a good balance of dark and comic elements. At first, it seems quite dark and depressing, like “Leaving Las Vegas,” but with more comic elements. The last part of the movie lightens the overall tone of the film quite a bit. It begins like a contemporary drama, but ends like a fable. William H. Macy is fabulous in the title role. Nobody does a hang dog character like Macy. He was tailor made for this role and he plays it to the hilt. Maria Bello turns in a fine performance in a difficult role, but the real star of this movie is Alec Baldwin, who turns in his best performance since “The Edge.” Baldwin creates a great, complex character. He is charming, smart, sensitive and dangerous all at the same time. He can be kind, or he can flip out in a murderous rage in an instant. Paul Sorvino is also superb as the lounge singer who has seen better days.

There have been many movies about Las Vegas, but I don't think I've seen any better than “The Cooler.” It conveys both the glitter and the danger lurking just under the surface. Macy, Sorvino and Bello all perfectly embody the loneliness and desperation of people who came to Las Vegas hoping to get rich, but have had all of the hope wrung out of them. The love affair between Bernie and Natalie brings the movie to life. It breaks the bleak spell that Las Vegas had on them. Others in the movie aren't so lucky. There is plenty of darkness in this movie, for those who like that sort of thing, but I was sure glad those lighter elements were there as well. The cinematography by James Whitaker and editing by Arthur Coburn (“Spider-Man”) are both dazzling. The musical score by Mark Isham and Diana Krall and the Sinatra-type soundtrack both sparkle as well. This is one of the best films of the year, it rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2003 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)