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Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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The Cooler is part black comedy, part romance, part homage to a bygone era in Vegas history, and part Scorcese-esque thug drama. Unfortunately, the whole falls short of the sum of its parts.

Luck Be a Lady

Macy and Bello heat up The Cooler
Macy and Bello heat up The Cooler

Set in the Golden Shangri La, an old-fashioned casino at “the other end of the strip,” The Cooler conjures up ghosts of the Vegas of old, the legendary place where gambling was the main attraction instead of today’s super theme park casinos that entice would-be gamblers… and their children.

At the heart of the casino’s modest prosperity (its $35 million annual take pales in comparison to the modern big boys), is Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy, Fargo), a loser of Biblical proportions. Yes, he’s a loser, but he’s lucky enough to put his bad luck to work as a “cooler” at the Golden Shangri La. It’s his job to cool off gamblers on hot streaks simply by placing his own bet at the table. His inevitable loss is enough to create a chilling effect amongst all gamblers left in his wake.

Bernie’s in his final week of employment at the Golden Shangri La. After toiling away for years in a place with no clocks and no sense of night and day, calling a sleazy cheap motel his home, and having fulfilled his payback obligations to the casino’s manager, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross), Bernie is ready to strike out on his own and make a new life for himself.

As fate would have it, a beautiful young cocktail waitress, Natalie (Maria Bello, Coyote Ugly), falls in the way of his exit. The unlikely vixen is an exciting change of pace for burned-out Bernie, who hasn’t known love in ages. Their extracurricular activities heat up the cooler in the twilight of his career.

More precisely, Natalie puts an about-face on Bernie’s ways and the one-time sad sack finds he has the Midas touch, his fortunes are on the upswing, and his wagers no longer carry the kiss of death.

For most people, that’s a good thing. For Shelly, though, that’s bad news and he’s anxious to put the kibosh on Bernie’s fun before his final days put the entire casino out of business.

Night and Day

Baldwin’s overly dark character embodies the film’s biggest problems: Its violence is unnecessarily over-the-top and there’s an underlying mean-spiritedness to the proceedings. It’s as if the director, Wayne Kramer (with nothing of distinction on his rèsumè) and his first-time co-writer, Frank Hannah, were shooting for something along the lines of Goodfellas meets Ocean’s 11.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the film’s violence, but rather a steamy sex scene between Bernie and Natalie, that required a two-second snip to avoid an NC-17 rating. As for that romance, it’s not entirely convincing that the somewhat down-and-out Natalie would sincerely fall in love with the much older and completely down-and-out Bernie. Nonetheless, Macy and Bello do generate some chemistry, but of the variety better suited for a buddy flick than a full-blown romance. Their best moments involve simple, quiet conversations rather than their adventures in the sack.

In addition to that romance, there are a couple subplots involving a rag-tag assortment of cons and cheapskates. In the mix is Bernie’s conniving son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy, John Q), and his girlfriend, Charlene (Estella Warren, Kangaroo Jack). When they get caught conning people with a scam involving Charlene’s pregnancy, it’s time for Shelly to bust some kneecaps. But Bernie, always the honorable loser, steps up and takes on his unloving son’s debt.

Another side story involves an influx of new management determined to revitalize the Golden Shangri La. Part of their strategy is to revamp the casino’s centerpiece stage show, which features a washed-up and drugged-out has-been, Buddy Stafford (Paul Sorvino, Ciao America). The person chosen to make that transition happen is none other than *NSync’s Joey Fatone, who makes an appearance as Johnny Cappella, a young talent billed as “the next Harry Connick.”

That’s Life

For the record, the crowds do indeed return to the casino to see Johnny flanked by two, count ‘em, two, topless dancers in a show that still falls far short of the spectacular spectaculars at the other end of the strip.

And, just as Johnny’s show fails to live up to the hype, so does The Cooler.

The film is technically well-crafted and the cast is exceptional. Baldwin in particular is very good as the bad-tempered casino manager.

However, The Cooler makes a couple of false moves and doesn’t completely live up to its ambitions. For a movie that is ultimately about the awesome power of love, it’s a long, pummeling ride to get to that point via a story that is in turns dramatic, humorous, romantic, and violent, very violent.

Thankfully, the conclusion offers some relief and a final joke that would make Hitchcock laugh out loud.