Friday, January 25, 2008

The Cooler couldn't be Hotter

The Cooler isn't just one of my favorite Vegas movies. It's one of my all-time favorite movies. The only reason this flick doesn't rank as the ultimate Vegas movie is because, although it's supposedly set in Vegas, it wasn't filmed there.

William H. Macy, an actor who specializes in losers, hits the jackpot of loserdom with this role. He plays Bernie Lootz, a guy so riddled with bad fortune that he's employed as a "cooler" at an old-school Las Vegas casino, run by his longtime friend, Shelly, played by Alec Baldwin. All Bernie has to do is show up on the scene and hot tables go cold, saving the casino a fortune. The problem is, when Bernie falls in love with beautiful Maria Bello's character, Natalie, suddenly Lady Luck is on his side, which drives Shelly crazy.

Written by Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer and directed by Wayne Kramer, The Cooler is quite possibly the only noir fairy tale ever filmed. It's a risky cross-genre that really shouldn't work, but it does. It's moody and dark in all the right places and then effortlessly leaps into unlikely, gushing joy. And it's that duality that so perfectly captures both sides of the coin of love, and Vegas.

This is a smaller picture, not a multi-million dollar extravaganza. And what can make or break a little picture like this is the details. And the details here are so impeccably -- even lovingly -- translated, that it takes this movie to a different level where it does what so few pictures do. It marries the best of film and movies. It's highly entertaining, but it's also smart about it. The soundtrack alternates from tender and haunting with Diana Krall to raucous and swinging with an often overlooked Lerner & Lowe classic. The visual appeal of the movie is undeniable, even without a realistic Vegas backdrop. Here, the costuming stands symbolically in place, from Bello's watery greens to Macy's hot and cool suits. There are interweaving storylines, none of which get cluttered or overplayed; they just twine together and culminate perfectly.

It's a true testament to the excellence of this movie that it really does capture the essence of Vegas while not even being there. It was filmed in a real casino, which helps with the ambience. And it's the perfect casino for the story they're telling, but it's one that just doesn't quite really exist in Vegas, either. But, instead of being a drawback, it only adds to the fairy tale quality of the picture with it's slightly enchanted unreality.

Macy has never been better, and Bello is fantastic. Ron Livingston gives a solid performance. And of course, there's the great Alec Baldwin, and this is one of his greatest film roles.

Visually, Vegas may be missing as a character. But they still managed to capture all the heartbreak and romance of the city and translate it into one cohesive narrative.

The entire concept of this movie was a gamble -- to mix such distinct genres, and put it all in the hands of a loser as a leading man. But that's Vegas for you. Sometimes the most unlikely bets payoff huge. And that's what makes this movie a winner.

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