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Film / The Cooler

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"When your life depends on losing... the last thing you need is lady luck."

Directed by Wayne Kramer, The Cooler is a 2003 drama film starring William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, and Maria Bello.

Unlucky Bernie Lootz (Macy) has little going for him: He lives in a dreary studio apartment in a rundown motel on the Las Vegas Strip, he's indebted to Shangri-La casino boss Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin), who years earlier cured him of a gambling habit by destroying his kneecap, and he can't recall the last time he had physical contact with a woman.

Bernie's success as a "cooler" (he is so unlucky that he breaks other people's winning streaks just by standing close to them) is jeopardized when cocktail waitress Natalie Belisario (Bello) seemingly takes an interest in him, and his luck — and that of those around him — takes a turn for the better. What Bernie doesn't know is that Shelly has paid the woman to seduce him into staying in town. What Shelly doesn't know is that Natalie actually has fallen in love with Bernie, and vice versa.


  • Affably Evil:
    • Larry is nothing but respectful to Shelly, even as he makes it clear that his old-school casino just isn't going to cut it in the new, Disneyfied Vegas. Note: this is a guy who works for the mob, with all the violence that entails.
    • Nicky nods along with Shelly's rant about how good and classy things used to be in Vegas, and how shitty it's gotten since. Nevertheless, Nicky's a mob boss and he's all about money. If Vegas is changing, it's changing. Also, he'll kill people.
  • Ascended Meme: In-Universe, Bernie tells Natalie that she's an easy mark and repeats the Urban Legend about marking people with chalk, saying that he used to do that for Shelly. In reality, mark was an old synonym for target, so marks were just people you were aiming to scam.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Natalie finally cracks Shelly's shell when he tells her that "I could make you disappear like that! And nobody would miss you!"
    Natalie: Bernie would!!
  • Asshole Victim: A young jerkass gambler keeps taunting Nicky at the craps table. Nicky gives him a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown and Bernie has to call in security to save the guy's life.
  • Bad Boss: Shelly isn't above beating the shit out of his employees. Nicky isn't above murdering Shelly breaking Larry's arm. Just to be clear, for all his "with all due respect", Larry is the new boss at Shangri-La, and Nicky is just a made man.
  • Badass Boast: Shelly, to his victim, before and during an epic beatdown.
    Shelly: "Now listen to me, you little Harvard turd. Lootz is all right. So he's walking out of here with everything he's got coming to him. And if you so much as touch one fucking hair on his fucking head, I'm going to fucking wallpaper this fucking bathroom with your fucking ass, you understand me? Muted tones, isn't that what you said? Huh? Huh? I can't hear you. Wait, wait a minute, there it is... blended in, at a subsonic level, like some kind of mantra: pain, pain, PAIN." (breaks his arm)
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted with Natalie after Shelly beats her up. Her face is still swollen, bruised and stitched up towards the end of the film.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Bernie and Natalie get out of Vegas, happy together and with a lot of cash because Bernie finally, finally won. However, the whole point of the movie is that a guy like Bernie can only exist in the golden age of Film Noir and mafia Vegas. Shelly was the albatross around Bernie's neck, but he genuinely loved Bernie, and, just like Shelly, the old Vegas is dead, murdered by the new Vegas.
  • Born Unlucky: Bernie is such a magnet for bad luck, he can put an end to any gambler's winning streak just by standing next to them. That's actually how he makes a living.
  • Bully Hunter: Bernie takes advantage of his status as a professional loser to woo Natalie by getting a Jerkass who grabbed her tits 86ed from the Shangri-La.
    Bernie: You'll wanna hang around for this.
  • The Chew Toy: Bernie is the loser. He loses professionally. He loses so badly he makes other people lose. He lost a kneecap to gambling debts. He's a week away from retirement. People can't remember his name. He lives in a shitty motel where the walls are so thin his bed bounces when hookers fuck next door.
  • Childhood Friends: Bernie and Shelly have been together for decades. They used to run a small booth on Coney Island, now they run a con on a larger scale in Vegas.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Shelly likes to deliver these.
  • Common Hollywood Sex Traits: The movie goes out of its way to avert this. The first time Natalie and Bernie have sex, he's a one-pump chump (because it's been years). The second time, it goes a lot better for Natalie, but then we get a shot of them banging the headboard against the wall not having sex, just so Bernie can get some revenge on his neighbors, and, y'know what? Natalie's and Bernie's naked asses bouncing around? Not great.
  • Cool Car: Though the movie doesn't go out of its way to only populate Vegas with vintage cars, most of the focus does go onto classic cars. We get a shot of one driving down the strip, and Bernie drives a beautiful baby blue with a white top.
  • Crapsack World: This is the dark side of Vegas. We don't get any glitz, no glamour. Nothing but sleaze. Even the mob is getting worse, giving up honor and the high life in exchange for more cash.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Natalie had a son named Joe. She gave him up for adoption when she was 17, he was 1. She got a tattoo of a pair of twos, a "little Joe".
  • Death by Irony: After spending the movie extolling the virtues of the old way of doing things, Shelly gets dealt with old school. Bullet to the back of the head by a mobster in a nice suit who surprised him in the back seat of his car.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: In your classic Film Noir, heroes and villains alike could slap women around no problem. But when Shelly does it, it's clear he's crossed a line, and even he feels guilty. His goal was to force Natalie to leave... but he just walks out of the room and leaves her with Bernie.
  • Dirty Cop: A cop on Nicky's payroll pulls up behind Bernie and Natalie at the end, gets them out of the car, and tells them to get on their knees after pulling his gun...
  • Disappeared Dad: What else could you expect of perennial loser Bernie? He desperately wants a relationship with his son, but his son is a jerkass with a junkie mom and a loser dad who doesn't want anything from Bernie apart from any cash he can scam from his old man.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The new Shangri-La is a tall, circular tower, with two smaller towers near each other at the base. It's a penis.
  • Drunk Driver: One appears in the finale as a Deus ex Machina by running over the corrupt cop that had been about to execute Bernie and Natalie.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Bernie and Natalie have to grow a lot to show how good they are, how much they love each other, how much they're willing to do for one another, how much abuse they'll take, and how much they'll stand up to the assholes in charge of Vegas, and hot damn if it ain't worth it.
  • End of an Age: Shelly is the old school mafia Vegas. Larry and his numbers guy are the new corporate Disneyland Vegas.
    • In a meta sense, the film marks the transition of Vegas as a seedy, high class, criminal, elite den of vice to the Disneyland seedy, high class, criminal, elite den of vice it is today. You can't really do mobster movies in Vegas set today.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Bernie limps onto the casino floor and touches a roulette table, causing all the players to lose. He sits down at the bar and asks for coffee with cream... and they're out of cream. Natalie shows up to struggle with her shitty position at the casino and forget Bernie's name. Bernie then goes out on the floor and tells the floor boss that the casino owner wants Natalie on the tables (so she can earn better tips from the gamblers, because Bernie has a crush on her).
  • Everybody Smokes: As a love letter to the casino gangster movies, there's a lot of people smoking.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The two goons who drag Natalie into Bernie's motel room are disturbed when Shelly backhands her into the mirror. Even Shelly seems to have a My God, What Have I Done? moment.
  • Exact Words: When Shelly catches Bernie's son Mikey cheating at the craps table along with Mikey's girlfriend Charlene, he asks Bernie what their lives are worth. When Bernie offers to take in another $150k in debt to spare them, Shelly still breaks Mikey's leg, stating, "150 G's [only] buys their lives."
  • Feet-First Introduction: We first meet Bernie in an ill-fitting suit and mediocre loafers, so that the film can showcase his limp.
  • Film Noir: Heavy sax music, a duplicitous dame, the mob, a guy who can't stop drinking whiskey, chiaroscuro...
  • Fixing the Game: Mikey and Charlene show up at Shangri-La using loaded dice to cheat at craps. Even that can't beat Bernie's bad luck, and Shelly spots it.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Larry doesn't believe in "coolers". He thinks Bernie must be a sharp or a mechanic.
  • Foreshadowing: The first time she and Bernie have sex, Natalie has to get up and get a shot of whiskey... her face is not that of a woman charmed by a Dogged Nice Guy. After they have sex, she has a Thousand-Yard Stare.
  • Friendship Moment: Shelly shows this a lot. He's a gangster and he's trying to do the gangster shit, but... he cares about his people. He keeps showing he's trying to maintain the old ways of honor and brotherhood in the face of a new, uncaring, corporate era.
  • Good Old Ways: Shelly and Nicky Fingers long for the days before Las Vegas was corporate. The former is trying to keep his casino old school despite Larry's suggestions.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: Shelly told Natalie to seduce Bernie so Bernie would stay in Vegas. Instead she fell in love with Bernie and, by changing his luck, will get him out of Vegas for good. Not only that, the implication is that Natalie will finally see her dreams of being a writer take off, because she and Bernie are one another's good luck charms.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: We don't see Shelly bashing Mikey's legs with a hammer.
  • The Grunting Orgasm: Bernie gives one during the tune, 'Luck be a Lady Tonight' when having sex with Natalie.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Shelly, who crippled Bernie both physically and financially to begin with and destroyed him as a man over the years doesn't interfere when Bernie starts a winning streak to buy his future back at the craps table. Shelly takes it a step further by beating down his blueblood assistant when he tries to stop Bernie.
  • In Love with the Mark: Natalie seduces Bernie because Shelly hired her to do it... and immediately falls in love with him, because he's just a really nice guy who goes out of his way to help her.
  • Internal Reveal: The third act's climax is Natalie telling Bernie that his best friend paid her to seduce him to try and keep him in Vegas.
  • Irony: Things start going bad for Bernie when his luck turns good and he starts to win at the tables.
  • It Belongs in a Museum: Larry gives us a Shout-Out when he says that "Don't get me wrong, nostalgia is great. We love nostalgia, but It Belongs in a Museum. I think there comes a time to decide whether you're running a museum, or you're running a casino."
  • It's All My Fault: Bernie blames himself for his son being a loser. Bernie left because he knew what a loser he was and thought his son would be better off... instead his son turned out to be a loser like his dad who got his legs broken by an old school gangster.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Shelly is a gangster who's running a brutal business that involves beating the shit out of people, crippling them, and possibly the occasional murder. Still, when Bernie gets on a hot streak and gets out of the game? Shelly's happy for the poor mook.
  • The Jinx: Bernie Lootz is employed by a Las Vegas casino to simply wander near any gambler who is winning too much. Because of his aura of bad luck, the gambler will instantly start losing.
  • Job Title: The Cooler.
  • Joisey: Apart from Bernie, the old-school characters tend to have joisey accents. Shelly is an old-school mob boss who looks out for her friends. Natalie's a girl whose family kicked her out after she got pregnant in high school and came to Vegas to try to make it as a show girl.
  • Kick the Dog: Shelly straddles the line between jerkass and monster, like a lot of mobsters. He crosses it first by threatening Natalie to give her to break up with Bernie via note, then by beating the shit out of her
. He jumps back by defending Bernie against Nicky.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Of course Bernie and Natalie get their happy ending thanks to a random ass drunk driver, and Bernie points out that "It's just luck! It's freaky, freaky luck!".
  • Like Father, Like Son: Bernie's son Mikey also has the misfortune of pissing Shelly off and having his kneecap shattered due to gambling.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: Subverted. We see both Bernie and Natalie lying on the bed complimenting each other about the sex they just had, but when the camera moves downward, Natalie has her hands on his penis.
  • Meaningful Background Event: As Bernie pulls into a convenience store parking lot, the car's reflection shows the store's sign "EZ Market" with the last two letters burned out, reading "EZ Mark". We later learn that Natalie was paid by Shelly to be with Bernie.
  • Meaningful Name: Bernie Lootz, who spent his life as a shitty, degenerate gambler who could never win, finally walks away with all the Lootz.
  • Metaphorgotten: Shelly lets off a long one to rant about the new-style entertainment casinos as opposed to the old-school gambling dens.
    Shelly: You mean that Disneyland mook-fest out there? Huh? C'mon, you know what that is? Huh? That's a fucking violation is what that is. It's something that used to be beautiful. Used to have class, like a gorgeous, high-priced hooker with an exclusive clientele. Then along comes that Steve Wincock sucker and knocks her up and puts her in a fucking family way. Now she's nothing but a cheap, fat whooah hiding behind too much fucking make-up. I look at her, I see all her stretch marks, it makes me wanna cry. But I remember the way she used to be. Am I right?
  • Mundane Fantastic: In an otherwise realistic setting, Bernie's luck (good or bad) is simply magical.
  • Obviously Evil: In case the "pregnant woman faking going into labor and tripping over crap" con in the diner wasn't enough of a clue, Mikey and his girlfriend up the ante when they return. She's smoking and tipping the ashes into one of Bernie's plants, then goes into the bathroom to do coke. Meanwhile Mikey assumes Natalie's a hooker and tries to buy her services with a chip.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Ironically, Bernie wonders what the fuck is going on when he starts to win at blackjack.
    • The waitress who pours Bernie's coffee and always apologizes when they're out of cream is delighted when they finally have cream for him... but recognizes what's gone wrong when they're out of cream again.
  • Only Sane Man: Larry, despite being a young profit-driven douchebag, never makes a wrong argument. The Shangri-La should be turned into an entertainment venue, New Vegas Style. Shelly shouldn't drag a cheater up to his office and offer him An Arm or a Leg but instead be handed over to the cops. Vegas is, and has always been, the worst of humanity, but he's arguing for the newer, more legal, more efficient Humans Are the Real Monsters.
  • Papa Wolf: Even though Mikey's a jerkass who scammed Bernie, Bernie goes the distance for him after Mikey and Charlene try to cheat at the Shangri-La. Even after he learns that Mikey lied to him and Charlene isn't pregnant, he doubles down.
  • Parental Issues: Bernie runs into his son Mikey at a diner (Mikey and his girlfriend are trying to pull a trip and fall then sue someone con, but Bernie's there, so, no). Mikey's mom is a strung out junkie and Mikey wants nothing to do with Bernie.
  • Pet the Dog: Shelly has his moments. He's caught between two worlds. He first pets the dog when he admits to Bernie that he gave Buddy the heroin necessary for him to die, because Buddy was part of the old world and would just keep scraping along, never taking the buyout and retiring.
  • The Power of Love: Love is so powerful it can convince a broken woman to believe in goodness and hope for a future she thought she'd lost. It's so powerful it can turn a man Born Unlucky into a man Born Lucky. It can convince a Jerkass to reveal he's a Jerk with a Heart of Gold. It can change the world, if only for a few people who deserve it.
  • Rage Breaking Point: Bernie loves Shelly. Shelly's been his only friend for decades. When he learns Shelly paid Natalie to seduce him to get him to stay in Vegas? Whatever, that's business. But the fact that Shelly hit her? Bernie walks into the casino, punches Shelly in the gut...
    Bernie: If you ever hurt her again, I'll kill you!
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Bernie spells out to Shelly the message the movie has been sending him. That his dream of a Vegas that means something? It's all bullshit. Shelly's lost in the middle of the desert, chasing a mirage.
  • Record Needle Scratch: Trying to be cool and classy, Bernie puts on a record, then bumps into the record player.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Shelly, after his Heel–Face Turn, is shortly whacked by Nicky Fingers.
  • The Reveal: The third act opens with Shelly confronting Natalie about the fact that he paid her to seduce Bernie to keep the man in Vegas.
  • Romantic Fake–Real Turn: Natalie starts out seducing Bernie because she was paid to, but ultimately falls in love with him for real. They get their happy ending.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • Born Unlucky Bernie knocks over a shaker of salt (an ill omen) during his argument with Natalie about leaving Vegas in the second act.
    • Bernie's only lucky when Natalie's nearby. Otherwise, he's still a cooler.
  • Trapped by Gambling Debts: The reason why Bernie Lootz works for the casino as a "Cooler" is because he owes the casino over a hundred thousand dollars in gambling debts.
    • Natalie's luck is as shitty as Bernie's. Together... they have a future.
  • Shown Their Work: When Bernie finally steps up to the table, he steps up to the craps table. Of all the games in the casino, that's the one where you're most likely to win if you play perfectly. You can almost break even with a perfect game. A degenerate gambler like Bernie would know this.
  • Undying Loyalty: Until the last act, Bernie is utterly loyal to Shelly. He's grateful to his only friend, his childhood friend, for breaking his kneecap, as it got him out of gambling and into a steady, if shitty, job. He can even forgive that Shelly paid Natalie to seduce him.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Buddy is an aging singer with a serious heroin habit. Shelly's trying to keep him on the edge of Functional Addict...
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Natalie falls for Bernie and convinces him he can be a better man. She does such a good job, she literally changes his luck for the better.