Those who frequent the swanky casinos and glamorous tables in Las Vegas and elsewhere around the world will tell you that there are often baffling and nonsensical superstitions which abound on casino floors all over the world. These will not make any sense to a layman, but within the world of gambling and casinos, they are often considered to be unbreakable rules, which will rain down bad luck if broken, or continue to rake in the cash as long as the player abides by them. The 2003 movie ‘The Cooler’ is a flick which plays on this theme, with Alec Baldwin and William H. Macy forming a dangerous duo who apparently break up winning streaks on the floor.
Alec Baldwin plays the role of Shelly, the boss of the Shangri-La high roller casino for vip players in Vegas, who employs Macy’s character, Bernie. Bernie’s job is to wander around the casino, and to walk near or even just surreptitiously touch those on hot winning streaks, and then sure enough, their luck turns for the worse. This is of course depressing for Bernie, as it confirms what he has known all along, that he causes bad luck for people anywhere near him, but it is a very useful trick for Shelly to keep the casino’s profits going. However, there is an existential threat on the horizon, as a group of new investors bring in someone from a business school to update Shangri-La and bring it kicking and screaming into modern times, which means doing away with old-school practices like this.
The backstory behind Shelly and Bernie’s relationship is also fascinating, as Shelly had Bernie knee-capped due to a loan he owed him, but then paid to have him patched up and brought him onto the payroll, since his ability to induce bad luck is worth its weight in gold on a casino floor. Bernie wants to get out now though – he’s saved some money and plans on getting out of Vegas in a week. All of these plot points may make ‘The Cooler’ sound like it’s a sitcom, but it is much more than just a dark comedy based on the world of casinos in Vegas. Director Wayne Kramer and writer Frank Hannah do a great job of showing that there is a lot more happening beneath the surface than what is being shown.
All of the characters are amazingly human, in that they all have contradictions and flaws. Bernie, for example, which is probably one of Baldwin’s best acting performances, is someone who can be cruel and affectionate at the same time. His life is thrown into disarray as well, when his son turns up unexpectedly with a pregnant wife. He has always had a difficult relationship with him, but, feeling great about where his life is, he decides to shower the couple with his benevolence, which turns out to be a big mistake, since his son (Mikey) is definitely not a nice person. These contradictions and oddities make up this movie, which makes it all the more real, and there will be more than one person who can relate to the decisions that many of the characters make throughout this movie.
‘The Cooler’ is actually quite an old-fashioned, old-school movie, much like the Shangri-La casino which is depicted, in that it has very few bells and whistles to distract the viewer. Thus, the writing and acting are what carry this movie, with characters who look and feel real, and the world they inhabit seems like it could be next door (if one were in Vegas, of course). The direction is superb as well, with Kramer knowing when to put in a fancy shot and when to keep things simple. All of this makes ‘The Cooler’ an excellent movie for gambling fans, and just generally fans of good cinema to watch.