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The Cooler Reviews

In the temple of gambling in the desert called Las Vegas, luck is more precious than love or money. Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) oozes luck — bad luck, to be sure, but that can be good for casino managers like Shelley Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), who employs Bernie as a "cooler." Bernie spreads his bad mojo around Kaplow's down-at-the-heels Shangri-La, putting the freeze on the hottest winning streak before the casino gets stuck with making a big payoff. Once a reckless gambler, sad-sack Bernie is paying off a debt working for Shelley, but his servitude is almost over and he's counting down the days until he can pack up and make a new start somewhere — anywhere — else. The first wrench in his plan is disillusioned Shangri-La waitress Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello), who inexplicably falls head over high heels in love with Bernie. Love turns Bernie's luck around and makes him useless as a cooler, an especially inopportune development since Shelley is dealing with smug young hotshot Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), who's been hired by the Shangri-La's owners to come up with ways to make the place over into a slick entertainment complex. Shelley doesn't believe in much, but he believes in old-school Vegas and hates everything about its new, family-friendly incarnation. The second wrench is the unexpected reappearance of Bernie's estranged son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy), and his hugely pregnant girlfriend, Charlene (Estella Warren). Embittered and manipulative, Mikey hits up his dad for money — ostensibly for the baby — and gets himself in big trouble by trying to beat the house — Shelley's house — with loaded dice. Co-writer and director Wayne Kramer's debut feature reverberates with echoes of dark fables like INTACTO (2001) and THE WINNER (1997) and gritty exposes of Vegas's ugly underbelly a la P.T. Anderson's HARD EIGHT (1997). But strong performances — Baldwin's smoothly vicious Shelley is a revelation — and Kramer's eye for the striking detail give the familiar material its own distinctive flavor. The supporting cast is a dream, from Paul Sorvino as a washed-up junkie lounge singer and former 'N Sync pinup Joey Fatone as his flashy young replacement to vivacious actress-singer Ellen Greene as a hard-bitten bartender with a cigarette glued to her lip. And if the ending isn't quite in sync with the movie's overall tone, things work themselves out in a surprisingly satisfying fashion.