It's all an illusion, of course. We know the lights are going to come up at the end, revealing the unchanging reality of the world outside, but we remain susceptible to her wiles. So, as someone who's been suckered a time or two, I'm a bit of an easy mark for movies set in Vegas (or Atlantic City or Monte Carlo). However, my preference is for stories about the dreamers and dead-end dropouts who gravitate to such unwholesome places, hoping to find a pot of gold at the end of the gutter. As it happens, this territory was covered by one of the better indie films of the 1990s, Hard Eight (since re-titled Sidney), which remains my favorite film by the celebrated P.T. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). And last year saw the release of the little-seen Owning Mahowny, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman turned in a heartbreaking performance as a shy bank manager with a gambling addiction. And one of my better home-viewing experiences last year was Louis Malle's Atlantic City, a marvelous 1980s film about never-weres and never-will-bes which starred Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon with a wry and sentimental script by John Guare.
While The Cooler isn't quite as good as its predecessors, it transcends an occasionally dim-witted plot with sparkling performances from its three middle-aged leads: William H. Macy, Maria Bello and Alec Baldwin. Macy plays the title character, a career hustler and loser saddled with the appropriately inelegant name of Bernie Lootz. Bernie has a bad limp, courtesy of an old, unpaid gambling debt, and his vibe is so forlorn that he's found a niche in Vegas working for Baldwin's Shelly Kaplow, a tougher and more successful crony who operates a defiantly unfashionable casino called Shangri-La. Bernie is the casino's "cooler" and his job is simple: When a gambler gets on a roll and begins to soak the house, Bernie sidles up next to him and transmits his bad luck.
Although Bernie's unique talent would seem to be worth a fair amount of money to Shelly, Bernie apparently only gets paid enough to live in a dismal motel in which his existence is so pathetic that his cat has taken off. Enter Maria Bello's Natalie, a weather-beaten but still quite attractive blond cocktail waitress. Although she's a stock character in these Vegas movies, Bello mostly steers clear of the bathos. One day, Bernie's luck begins to change as an unlikely courtship ensues between him and the fading waitress. In one of the film's loveliest scenes, Bernie and Natalie make love in a humorous, awkward fashion as "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" wheezes out of Bernie's infrequently used turntable. And, in a nice comic twist to the fanciful plot, Bernie's newfound fortune carries a price. Instead of putting the chill on the hot gamblers, he makes them even luckier, thus arousing the ire of Shelly.
If the characters of Bernie and Natalie seem a bit familiar, it's Shelly who is most surprising. Kramer's script expends considerable effort developing him, thus rendering a much more interesting villain than is usually seen in films. Baldwin's Shelly is a sentimental, old-school casino operator who resists the Disney-fictation that's going on elsewhere on the strip. In a droll subplot, a young investor (played by Ron Livingston, best known for a not dissimilar role in Office Space) follows Shelly around, hectoring him to lighten the wallpaper and get rid of his third-rate Tony Bennett-style lounge singer (Paul Sorvino). But Shelly is no softie: He keeps his employees in line through various brutal means, including threats of violence and feeding the heroin addiction of his singer. For his part, Baldwin attacks the role with an appallingly effective mixture of rage and self-pity that recalls his role in Glengarry Glen Ross.
The Cooler is designed in a leisurely enough fashion that there's room for an unresolved but compelling subplot involving the sudden appearance of Bernie's estranged son (the excellent character actor Shawn Hatosy) and his girl (former model Estella Warren). Although the movie contains no great surprises and its plot is about as plausible as drawing three cards to an inside straight, the tender and complex sympathies between Bernie, Natalie and Shelly make this film a surprisingly sweet and affecting experience.