Written by Kramer with Frank Hannah, The Cooler is the story of Bernie Lootz (Macy), a character who like Al Capp's Joe Btfsplk lives his life under a black cloud of bad luck. Bernie resides in a former motel that has been outfitted with a grimy kitchenette. His houseplants are all dead, and his pet cat has fled the vicinity. Like an anti-Midas, everything Bernie touches turns to tin. So a Las Vegas casino has hired him to destroy the fortunes of hot gamblers; once Bernie has bet on their number, they don't have a chance. Casino manager Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin at his blunt bully best) watches the action on the video monitors in his office and dispatches Bernie from blackjack table to crap game to roulette wheel whenever any player stages a big run.
Then Bernie commits an act of decency for casino waitress Natalie Belisario (a blistering Maria Bello); he uses his influence with Shelly (the two men have known each other for 30 years) to have Natalie's station moved from the nickel slots to the high-stakes tables where the tips will be much better. Bernie obviously likes Natalie, but he doesn't fool himself that he might get anywhere with her. His luck with women is the same as his luck with anything else. He helps because he's sympathetic to Natalie's evident desperation.
But a good deed isn't always punished, and suddenly Bernie gets lucky, both figuratively and literally. Natalie asks Bernie out for a thank-you drink. They hit it off, and pretty soon they're in Bernie's motel room practicing some of the most explicit sex that cinema has served up since Halle Berry's romp with Billy Bob Thornton in Monster's Ball. And that's just the beginning of Bernie's lucky streak. Buoyed by loving Natalie and being loved in return, Bernie becomes no longer a cooler but an outright heater. He wins all his own bets, and so does everyone else in the casino. Psychologically, this is good; professionally, it's disastrous. So Bernie's relationship with Lady Luck is such that even his good luck is bad luck.
The plot in The Cooler is driven by a less-than-insistent contest between old-school Shelly and young Harvard MBA Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston) who wants to bring the casino into the new "family" age where you still lose your money but feel like you're at Disney World rather than Sleazeville. So Shelly feels greater pressure than ever to maximize the take to prove that the old way is still the best, and he's got no patience with a cooler who's thawing out big-time.
The Cooler is set in an effectively fantastical world that plays Bernie's relationship with luck as a straight-up fact. The film owes its narrative style to the Quentin Tarantino of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Shelly has a long speech about the meaning of Lost Horizon. And like the sex, the violence is portrayed in vivid detail. Those who cross Shelly get their arms and legs broken, and we can hear the bones snap. In a film so funny and ultimately sweet, the graphic bloodletting constitutes a regrettable choice in a film that otherwise makes few mistakes.
Supported by its superb performances, The Cooler delivers its unorthodox love story with great subtlety. In hindsight, the viewer might realize how several mildly puzzling moments serve to set up subsequent surprises. And the romantic angle really works. Hollywood has long teamed middle-age male stars with beautiful young women, but the leading man has seldom, as Macy describes himself, looked like Howdy Doody. Nonetheless, Kramer and Hannah gradually convince us that a young woman like Natalie just might fall for a man like Bernie. She's running from a sad past but trapped in a dead-end present, hustling for tips and exposed to groping by any arrogant gambler with a roll of cash in his pants. Bernie offers her things she's never known: initially consideration, eventually adoration. For Natalie and Bernie both, their love is a life buoy in a world where they are drowning. And the film's conclusion underscores its core theme: To know love is to experience peace.
- High stakes: Natalie (Maria Bello), Shelly (Alec Baldwin) and Bernie (William H. Macy) play the odds in Wayne Kramer's film about love and luck, The Cooler.