A romantic heart beats under the cynical shell of The Cooler (2003), Wayne Kramer’s tale of losers, gamblers, gangsters, and the unluckiest man in the world.
William H. Macy is Bernie, a sad-sack con man and small time grifter whose luck is so sour that all he has to do is hover and a gambler’s winning streak heads south. His downfall is a windfall for old-time casino operator Shelly (Alec Baldwin), his boss and “buddy” who once had his kneecap shattered (for the interest on his back-breaking debt) and continues feeding his misery just to keep him cooling the cards and the dice at his Vegas gambling joint.
Maria Bello is the tough luck cocktail waitress who, against all odds, falls for the sap. “Anytime you don’t like what you see in the mirror, you look into my eyes,” she tells Bernie. “It’s the only mirror you ever need.” It changes his luck, much to the ire of Shelly.
The idea of the “cooler” is part of Vegas lore, and the tawdry backdrop of mobsters, users, and luckless pawns in the Golden Shangri-La, the last of the old school casinos on the strip, is the film’s trump card. Shelly is something of a wise-guy romantic with a heart of lead, running the place like it was still part of the Rat Pack era while battling the business interests who want to “modernize,” and Baldwin is perfect in the role (he earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his performance). He’s also an utter heel and a ruthless crook, the flip side of the gangster myth.
The love affair tends to drift into fantasy, but Kramer manages something rare in movies: sexual intimacy with a beautiful awkwardness more like the fumbling of something we’ve experienced than a fantasy we’ve seen on the screen.
Ron Livingston is the number cruncher who challenges Shelly’s authority, Paul Sorvino is the aging crooner in the lounge, and Shawn Hatosy and Estella Warren a young couple following in Shelly’s miserable footsteps.
The DVD special edition includes two commentary tracks (one by director Wayne Kramer, co-writer Frank Hanna, and director of photography Jim Whitaker, the other by Kramer with composer Mark Isham), an episode of the Sundance Channel’s superior series “Anatomy of a Scene” which dissects a key scene, and storyboard-to-film comparisons of two scenes.