Old-school Las Vegas heats up with ‘The Cooler’ | AspenTimes.com

Old-school Las Vegas heats up with ‘The Cooler’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

No place allows the old school to square off with the new way better than Las Vegas. The old guard is represented by blood and muscle, hunches and hookers; the new wave is grand marketing schemes, family-friendly attractions and theme hotels. From a place like the Bellagio to the old Sands is more than a quick stroll down the Strip. It is a massive time warp.

There is perhaps no better symbol of old Vegas than a legendary creature known as the cooler. A cooler was ” and maybe still is ” a born loser, hired by the casinos to cool down a hot table, to spread his bad luck, to turn gambling winners into losers. Employing a cooler means putting your faith not in statistical tables, but in luck. And few things are as old school as dumb luck.

Bernie Lootz, the protagonist of director Wayne Kramer’s “The Cooler,” is bad luck on legs. One of those legs isn’t so sturdy, thanks to a whacking of the knee, the price for a past gambling debt. Bernie, played by William H. Macy, is such a sad case that he is actually thankful to the casino boss, Shelly (Alec Baldwin), who gave him his limp, cured him of his gambling addiction, and hired him as a cooler at the extremely old-school casino, the Golden Shangri-La.

Bernie has been brilliant at the job. When he shuffles his sad face and greasy hair into place next to a hot roller, the dice turn instantly cold. To Shelly, Bernie is better than a system or having the house odds. Bernie is a sure thing.

But in the fablelike “The Cooler,” Bernie’s magic is a product of his personal misery. He needs his own bad fortune ” living in a rundown room (at the Better Luck motel), invariably having the cream run out just as his coffee’s been poured, having his own son scam him ” to spread the bad mojo around the casino floor.

So when Bernie’s luck begins to turn, his professional life is in trouble. Natalie (Maria Bello), a pretty cocktail waitress whose misfortune doesn’t quite compare to Bernie’s, has fallen for the sad sack. Her life has been miserable enough that Bernie ” a loser, but a good-hearted loser who recognizes what a catch Natalie is for the likes of him ” seems like a solid bet. Suddenly, Bernie is smiling, and actually bringing good luck to the Shangri-La bettors.

This doesn’t sit well with Shelly. The ultimate old-school casino boss, with a ferocious temper and a squad of goons who follow his every step, has other problems to handle: a slick B-school grad who has plans to upgrade the Shangri-La. Feeling the old ways slipping away, Shelly will do what it takes to keep Bernie an effective cooler. And that includes some pretty ugly stuff.

Despite a lame ending ” old-school Vegas die-hards will hate it ” “The Cooler” works as a romance, a portrait of a culture in transition, and a noir fable. Macy has perfected this sort of beaten character in a string of roles in outstanding movies (“Fargo,” “Pleasantville,” “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights”). Here he adds an element of hopefulness and determination, making it something of a new character for him.

But Macy is outdone by both of his co-stars. The newcomer Bello gives a fullness of emotion to Natalie; we sense that she has been beaten just to the point of breaking. Baldwin, as the cold, violent Shelly, is nothing short of a revelation, outdoing even his similar, memorable role in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Both deserve Academy Award nominations for their supporting roles.

‘In America’

The marketing of “In America” is miles apart from what the movie actually offers. The promo poster ” a family watching fireworks over the New York skyline, with the word “enchanting” above the scene ” led me to believe Jim Sheridan’s film was a warm story of a family adapting to a new culture.

Yes, “In America” is about an immigrant family; the film opens with the Irish family entering America. But what the film is really about ” a family learning to lean on one another in coping with tragedy, financial hardship and insecurities ” makes the immigrant factor incidental. The family here is dealing more with internal issues than with the exterior element of adapting to a new home.

“In America” gets an “F” for marketing. But the film gets an “A+” for being intensely emotional while retaining the essence of honesty. It is maybe the most satisfying film of the year.

“The Cooler” shows Friday, Jan. 2, at 8:15 p.m. at Harris Hall as part of Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings. For a full Academy Screenings schedule, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org.

“In America” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Friday through Sunday, Jan. 2-4.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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