Not that it isn't time for another film about the gambling world, mob violence, associated depravities and a cruel, sociopathic 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 hard-nosed 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 won't 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 hardly has to be in the proximity of 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 is his insurance policy for 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 it's almost paid off 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.
All this 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 metaphysical aura is now 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 traveling 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 of exquisite timing and cool delivery. Her cocktail waitress reality and well-paced exposure of who she is emotionally is captivating. 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 is a veritable icon of the character actor who is so versatile, you never tire of his virtuosic appearances. With chameleon-like 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 "boss man" one of his stronger roles in recent outings. Larry Sokolov is annoyingly ever-present as the mob's guy to oversee casino business.
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 under-lighted visual style is unnecessarily abrasive and annoyingly obscure. It seems like 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 winnings.
Jules Brenner has reviewed over 80 films a year since 2000. Check out any of the 250+ reviews at his web site where he writes under the pen name, The Filmiliar Cineaste:
"21 Grams" (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts) [11/21]
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