Cooler, The (2003): Sundance Film, Starring Alec Baldwin in his only Oscar Nominated Performance

By Michael T. Dennis


William H. Macy has transcended the label of character actor by making an art out of portraying uniquely American men defined by unfulfilled needs and pathos. 


In the new film, which premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, Macy plays Bernie, a man employed by the Shangri-La casino as a cooler, someone so unlucky that his mere presence at the tables can end a player’s winning streak when the house starts to fall too far behind.  This almost-supernatural un-luck also extends to Bernie’s personal life.  There is never enough cream for his coffee, his record player skips, and he spills the salt while going on a date after a long, long time.


The film opens with Bernie making the rounds at the Shangri-La and halting good luck wherever he sees it with a wave of hand or sideways glance.  Things change, when Bernie finds himself cultivating a relationship with Natalie (Maria Bello), a cocktail waitress hired to feign interest in the unlovable loser in order to keep him from following through on his plans to quit his unusual occupation. 


Pulling the strings behind the scenes is the Shangri-La’s owner, Shelly (Alec Baldwin), whose cynicism prevents him from predicting that Natalie and Bernie will fall in love.  The result is a severe upturn in Bernie’s luck and the evaporation of his cooling skills, creating the intriguing paradox of a man finally getting a break by losing the one thing he has been good at.


While Macy excels at portraying the pathetic Bernie, he is just as enthralling to watch as he realizes the change overcoming his character, accepting what seems an epic stroke of fortune (finally enough cream!) with suspicion and muted excitement. 


As Shelly, Baldwin renders a performance that earned him a much- deserved supporting actor Oscar nomination.  Dissimilar in almost every way, the two men are the foci around which the story orbits.  While Bernie is timid and cowering, Shelly is defined by massive ego, even in the face of his associates’ assertions that his refusal to bring his casino into the 21th century jeopardized their interests.  Baldwin masters the obstinacy of a powerful man refusing to acknowledge decline, clinging to the old methods (like believing in the superstition about coolers) while everyone around him uses algorithms and subliminal wallpaper to manipulate gamblers and maximize profits. 


It is an inspired piece of casting: Baldwin as Shelly is certainly no longer a young man, but neither is he old enough to be irrelevant.  We want him to make the right business decision and abandon his stubbornness, hopefully bringing Bernie along for the ride to better times. Eventually Shelly is revealed as stubborn and evil, and Baldwin is the perfect guy for a warning about the corrupting nature of greed and desperation in someone so outwardly superior.


Bernie’s ups and downs generate a discussion about luck and fate, suggesting that the former is sometimes a matter of will and that love trumps the latter.  Despite these thought-provoking elements, the film remains surprisingly light, coming across at times as a gentler version of Mike Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995) with the prostitute replaced by a waitress and the despair of depression only hinted at.  Bello makes a fine screen partner for Macy and some of the nicer moments between Natalie and Bernie could be plucked from a romantic comedy.


“The Cooler” never loses sight of its character-driven plot, and the filmmakers wisely cede to the strength of simple, good storytelling.  Visually inconspicuous despite its glitzy setting, the production has the feel of a world teetering on the brink of decay.  When Shelly recalls his nostalgic vision of Vegas (“It used to have class, like a gorgeous high-priced hooker with an exclusive clientele”), we can see what he is talking about through the elegant (if slightly dusty) appointments of his office and wardrobe.  Bernie’s Vegas is much more the underworld of sleazy motels and rusty cars.  Unseen, though talked about with alternating admiration and disdain, is the dominant Vegas illusion with its bright lights, luxurious hotel suites, and crowd-pleasing spectacle. 


Ultimately, though, the film succumbs to an overly conventional dramatic climax, complete with forced suspense and some short, awkward scenes that tie up all the loose ends.  The credits begin to roll over stock footage of casino demolitions, the eerily beautiful implosions leaving no doubt as to the relentless march of progress.  But by then Bernie has already made his escape, empowered by love–and a little luck. 


For Macy, “The Cooler” is a chance to bring together different sides of his acting prowess as already exhibited in diverse body of work.  He starts off as the pitiful failure from “Fargo” (1996) or the perpetual butt of the joke as in “Boogie Nights” (1997), later evoking the bluesy victim from “Magnolia” (1999) or “Focus” (2001).  Entrusted to a lesser talent, the very idea of a cooler would be difficult to accept; as rendered by Macy, it is not only believable, but also resonant and sympathetic.