In “The Cooler” Alec Baldwin plays Shelly Kaplow, a Vegas casino boss who makes money the old fashioned way: He preys on suckers, takes a piece of the hooker action and smashes the occasional knee cap. It’s the beefiest role the actor has sunk his teeth into since “Glengarry Glen Ross” and one of the best things about Wayne Kramer’s impressive directorial debut.
William H. Macy plays the title character with his customary bug-eyed aplomb. Bernie Lootz is a sadsack from way back, a loser whose loser vibe is so powerful it can turn other people’s luck around and make them losers too. And, when he ran up a $100,000 debt at the second tier, borderline seedy Shangri La, that’s exactly what Baldwin hired him to do. After smashing his kneecap, of course.
The intriguing thing about Shelly is his blend of ruthlessness and benevolence. As soon as he crippled Bernie, he paid to have him put back together and gave him a job. At the start of the film, six years later, we see him offering to use his influence to get him a new titanium knee. There’s real friendship between these two men. And it’s about to face a real test.
In one week, the period of time Macy promised to work at the casino will have come to a close and he wants out. Bad luck in a bottle is too valuable a commodity for a guy in Baldwin’s position to let slip through his fingers, however, so he pulls a few behind-the-scenes strings with the intention of keeping him on a leash.
Enter Maria Bello as a jaded Shangri La cocktail waitress. At the behest of her boss, she strikes up a relationship with Macy and lets it get serious in a hurry. He can’t believe his apparent good fortune and the unexpected developments don’t stop there. To her surprise, Bello finds herself developing real feelings for Bernie and, to Shelly’s, Bernie undergoes a karmic transformation that turns him from a cooler into someone who radiates good luck wherever he goes. Which gets expensive fast when he goes to work.
Baldwin has other problems too. The film has a parallel storyline that’s at least as compelling as Bernie’s. Shelly’s way of life is threatened when a group of investors arrives announcing the decision to install a business school upstart (Ron Livingston) to oversee sweeping modernizations to the casino. Baldwin argues that the last thing the strip needs is another family funland, that his place has continued to make money precisely because it’s remained old school while the rest of Vegas has gone Disney.
Unfortunately, these aren’t the sort of investors who hold meetings and take votes. Baldwin realizes he’s up against a business plan he can’t refuse and has to make up his mind whether or not to draw a line in the Sands, so to speak.
Kramer weaves the two stories beautifully. The script, cowritten by Frank Hannah, is a jackpot of smart touches, on the money observations and dialogue so tough and snappy it could have been cowritten by David Mamet instead. Half fairy tale, half gritty mob film, “The Cooler” is like something Scorsese might’ve made while channeling Capra. It’s an experiment, which doesn’t always work as well as it might but one which never for a second feels formulaic or recycled.
For my money, the movie should have given us more of Macy the magical loser and less of Macy the stud muffin and, in a number of respects, the picture’s ending is dicey. These are minor failings, though, and the film more than makes up for them with minor characters so inspired and vividly drawn they deserve movies of their own. The few moments Paul Sorvino appears on screen in the role of a smack-addicted lounge singer rank among the most memorable of his career.
The picture was a hit at Sundance and Lion’s Gate is hoping its luck will hold through awards season. The odds look fairly long on “The Cooler” upsetting “Return of the King.” Film lovers willing to ante up a couple hours of their time, on the other hand, can’t lose.