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The Cooler

There's Vegas, and then there's Old Vegas. Today, The Strip is a family-friendly stretch of neon burned into the midnight desert with elaborate fairground rides and replicas of world attractions — it's almost as if the fact that gambling is legal in Nevada is just some sort of bonus. But Old Vegas… that was built on betting, dames, and booze, or what casino directors in the day would simply sum up as "class." Old Vegas dons like things the way they've always been, because that's what works, and they'll go to almost any lengths to keep a good streak going. Call it intuition or call it superstition, but it's why Bernie Lootz has a job at the Shangri-La. You see, Bernie (William H. Macy) is a "cooler," a guy whose luck is so bad that the Shangri-La's casino director, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), keeps him around just to find gamblers who are running hot. All Shelly has to do is bet a buck at the same table, and suddenly the cards and dice go ice-cold. It's not that Bernie loves his job, or that he wants to be the most unlucky man on earth. In fact, he's been working off a $100,000 debt to Shelly over the past six years, and he only has six days left before he can punch a one-way ticket out of town. But just before he's ready to pack it in, he hooks up with Shangri-La cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). It's bad news for Shelly, who's entire operation is about to be taken over by a New Vegas college guy (Ron Livingston) with an architect's model and a spreadsheet. Not only is the Shangri-La failing to meet its bottom-line, but Bernie's "cooler" aura suddenly has become inexplicably hot. The fact that The Cooler (2003) is a modern-day fairy-tale is simply illustrated by its set-up: Not only are we asked to believe that "luck" is a tangible quality, but also that it can be fully personified. It's a clever premise, but also set against a human story about how love has a transformative power over the seemingly intransigent hand of fate. As Bernie Lootz, William H. Macy gets a rare shot at a leading role — the popular character actor has appeared in dozens of films over the past three decades as a favorite of David Mamet, P.T. Anderson, and the Coen Brothers, and his admirers will enjoy his expanded work here. He's well-matched with Maria Bello, the beautiful, down-on-her-luck waitress who came to Vegas as a teenager with showgirl ambitions who now serves drinks while getting groped by drunken louts. Much has been said about Macy and Bello's bedroom scenes with their playful, nonchalant nudity, but it also should be noted that each one has a palpable authenticity not found in mainstream films. From their first, awkward encounter to playful rolling around to Macy's subtle mid-conversation kisses on the back of Bello's neck, one gets the sensation of eavesdropping as much as movie-watching. The three-role script is rounded off by Alec Baldwin as Shelly — for Baldwin (like Macy, a David Mamet regular), it's a career-defining turn, an odd combination of menace, manipulation, and brutality belied with small moments of human compassion. Few actors today could play the part as well. Writer-director Wayne Kramer took advantage of a refurbished casino to capture the mood of The Cooler, and while his process shots, close-ups, and jump-cuts give the picture its energy, it's all set against the Shangri-La's low ceilings and dim lighting — from the gaming floor to Shelly's wood-paneled office, it's not hard to believe that we're looking at Old Vegas for the last time. Lions Gate's DVD release of The Cooler features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.53:1) from a source print that's flawless, if a bit dark-tinged by design, while audio is delivered in Dolby Digital 5.1. Supplements include a Sundance Channel "Anatomy of a Scene" segment (22 min.) and storyboards for two scenes. Keep-case.

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