“Those four words of endearment have cost this casino one million and counting today.” — Being a review of The Cooler

This is the second in a series of reviews of spec fic by stealth. The whole list is here.

Wayne Kramer’s 2003 drama The Cooler is one of urban fantasy’s best-kept secrets. It’s also one of the very few cinematic representations of Las Vegas that ring true to me, as a long-term former resident of the city where you’re not supposed to remember that not everybody’s a tourist.

The Cooler, like the short-lived FX comedy Lucky, focuses on the lives of the people who eke out a living in the margins of Sin City—cocktail waitresses, washed-up lounge acts, old-school Vegas mobsters failing to adapt in the shadow of the new corporate moneymakers that now run the town. And one Bernie Lootz, played brilliantly by William H. Macy—a guy so unlucky he’s contagious. Really, really contagious. Magically so.

As such, Bernie is employed by Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin)—the boss of an old-style Downtown casino, the Shangri-La—as a cooler. Which is to say, when somebody’s winning too much of the casino’s money, Bernie goes to work. He buys the winner a drink, or just brushes up against a hot table, and lets the curse of his presence go to work. There’s a gorgeous scene early on in the movie where the camera follows Bernie through the casino as he ruins days and busts streaks, all just by being who he is.

Bernie’s life is pretty miserable. His cat has abandoned him, and so has his ex-wife. He lives in the most squalid little long-term residence motel imaginable, and he hates his job, Las Vegas, and his life. The only thing he likes, in fact, is a gorgeous cocktail waitress named Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello), who doesn’t know he’s alive.

Until one day, Bernie does Natalie a solid, and Natalie can suddenly remember his name. It’s bad timing, though, because Bernie has plans to skip town as soon as his debt to Shelly is paid off—which is to say, in five more days, even though Shelly will do just about anything to keep him from leaving.

But as Bernie and Natalie connect, it seems that Bernie’s luck is changing…and the Shangri-La’s board wants to bring it into the 21st century, even if it has to do so over Shelly’s dead body.

There’s very little I don’t love about this movie. The performances are understated, vigorous, nuanced. Baldwin walked away with Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his portrayal of a man at once knee-cappingly ruthless and hopelessly sentimental, a cold-blooded killer in love with a romanticized memory of a Las Vegas that never really was. Bello is by turns funny, brash, brittle, and—finally—charged with poignant strength. And Macy is an absolute heartbreaker, a worn-out old man with a hound-dog face that can abruptly turn youthful with glee.

I especially like the way the love affair is played: two strong, grown-up people, trying to make room around the skeletons in their closets for each other’s shoes.

The plot’s resolution is audacious and wonderful and just perfectly right. And the directing’s on the money, too—there are sex scenes that feel like important narrative landmarks of a developing intimacy rather than high-gloss soft-porn photo shoots, and there are scenes of violence that can curl the viewer around the imagined pain of a blow. Nothing here is played for glamor; everything is played for truth, the glitz laid over it like a brittle candy shell.

And in that way, it manages to truly be a movie about Las Vegas, as well—the quiet desperation and scams and desperate hope and real true no-kidding magic going on just under the neon and hype.

Elizabeth Bear is the two-time Hugo-winning author of Grail, The Sea thy Mistress, and a bunch of other things.


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