If this story about the management of a Las Vegas casino doesn't attract a
wide audience, a breakthrough performance in it should turn the trick. This
is a case of an exquisitely promising actress finally given the chance at a
role that's a perfect fit and running with it. Maria Bello rules!
Not that it isn't time for another film about the gambling world, mob
violence, associated depravities and a sociopathically cruel casino boss who
makes simple madness seem like irascibility. The Vegas venue presented here
by co-writer/director Wayne Kramer and writer Frank Hannah offers up the
croupier stick with a few twists all its own, like the fact that the title
doesn't refer to an insulated container for beer.
The thing that makes Shelly Kaplow's (Alec Baldwin) casino unique is that
it's a remnant from the past, run in the traditional hardnose way by a
despotic boss who exerts power tyrannically. But, even he has business
connections to whom he's answerable. And, even then, he rejects their ideas
about an upgrade in the operation. They want to see a rebirth in the mold of
the newer, slicker hotel gambling palaces.
Shelly wont change anything in his operation, which he considers successful.
He's got a great thing going in the title character, his "Cooler", Bernie
Lootz (William H. Macy). Bernie is a guy who has more natural downer flowing
through his veins than a sedative addict. This inherent loser rarely has to
be in proximity to a hot table to turn it cold. You're winning mounds of
chips at Blackjack or craps? Bernie bets a dollar in your game and you are
an ice-man. As far as Shelly is concerned, Bernie's his insurance policy to
the bottom line.
Bernie may have picked up his little metaphysical power when Shelly broke his
knee caps to penalize him for an unpaid debt. Bernie now limps, but he
appreciates the disability because of how he turned the disadvantage of
morbid sadness into a career and an ability to pay his debt. Now, when his
gambling debt approaches payoff, and he informs Shelly that he's planning to
leave, Shelly plays the situation by hiring beautiful waitress Natalie
Belisario (Maria Bello) to apply her charms to keep Bernie on a love string
and in his place.
Which leads to unexpected consequences. Bernie indeed falls for the seductive,
down to earth Natalie, and the effect is to make his mood soar to previously
unknown heights. His cooling powers reverse. His metaphical aura is more
likely to heat up a table.
But the real story here is the development of the relationship. Natalie is
hardened by her circumstances, and vulnerable, with a past she's ashamed of.
When she's touched by Bernie's laid back manner, a man who takes an interest
in her for more than sexual reasons, and who protects her dignity when a
customer trashes her, she falls for him, ignoring the age difference. She's
found her man and shows it despite Shelly's expressed contempt for the
attachment, and his brutal and constant threat of malice.
Further complications arise with the reappearance in Bernie's life of Mikey,
his opportunistic son travelling with pregnant wife Charlene (Estella Warren)
to tap the old man's hard won reserves and show his gratitude with deception.
Bello is a wonder with her exquisite timing and cool delivery. She
captivates us with her cocktail waitress reality and well-paced exposure of
who she is emotionally. She reveals a character with a tough veneer for whom
acceptance that a Cinderella dream is a possibility in her life comes hard
but is worth risking everything for. There's big generosity in her
portrayal, with no hesitations or barriers. The accomplishment is art.
Little need be said about Macy, who through an almost flawless career has
shown bulletproof taste and talent and who is a veritable icon of the
character actor who is so versatile you never get tired of his appearance
shifts. With chamelion audacity, he somehow creates characters who are
freshly born for an endless string of quite disparate movies, from "Fargo" to
"Jurassic Park." The one he
pulls off here is designed for this particular casino.
Alec Baldwin makes his sociopathic bossman one of his stronger roles in recent
outings. Larry Sokolov is annoyingly everpresent as the mob's guy to oversee
The lighting is harsh and bitterly contrasty, in an apparent attempt to
mirror the menacing dimensions of the setting but, under cinematographer
James Whitaker's direction, the underlighted visual style is unneccessarily
abrasive and annoyingly obscure. It seems an attempt to stand apart but
produces an imposed falsity.
There may be a little over-familiarity with the setting, but this take on the
genre rolls the dice with fresh elements. Chances are it will draw its
intended crowd and pay off with good odds on one of my two favorite
performances of the year (see Naomi Watts in "21 Grams"), both richly deserving of academy
~~ Jules Brenner