Unlucky Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) has little positive going for him: he lives in a dreary place—a studio apartment in a run-down motel near the Las Vegas Strip; he can't recall the last time he had physical contact with a woman; he's indebted to the Shangri-La casino boss Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), who years earlier cured him of a gambling habit by breaking his kneecap. Kaplow had also paid Lootz's casino debts, and Bernie has been working off that large debt to Shelly for several years and the debt is nearly paid off. Lootz is weary of the casino business, and tells Kaplow he is leaving Las Vegas soon. His future success as a luck "cooler" is changed when cocktail waitress Natalie Belisario (Maria 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 yet is that Shelly has paid Natalie to seduce him into staying and working at the Shangri-La. What Shelly doesn't know is that Natalie actually has fallen in love with Bernie, and vice versa. Additional complications arise when Shelly, a relative old-timer who resents the Disneyfication of Vegas, resists the efforts of new Shangri-La owner advisers, including Ivy League graduate and condescending upstart Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), to update the casino hotel property and bring it into the 21st century. Lootz also learns his seldom-seen adult son is back in town, and, with his wife, is interfering with the operations at the Shangri-La. Though Shelly still has the backing of certain mob associates, such as gangster Nicky Fingers, the growing power of the new young Ivy League casino owners is lessening his power grip on the casino and the business he truly loves.William H. Macy as Bernard "Bernie" Lootz
Alec Baldwin as Sheldon "Shelly" Kaplow
Maria Bello as Natalie Belisario
Shawn Hatosy as Michael "Mikey" Lootz
Ron Livingston as Larry Sokolov
Paul Sorvino as Buddy Stafford
Estella Warren as Charlotte
Arthur J. Nascarella as Nicky "Fingers" Bonnatto
Joey Fatone as Johnny Cappella
Ellen Greene as Doris
MC Gainey as Highway Patrol Officer
Michelle Lopez as the Red Headed Craps Player "cooled" by Bernie
The film premiere was at the Sundance Film Festival. The Cooler was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Deauville Film Festival, among others, before going into limited release in the United States.The Cooler did show in Reno, Nevada, during its limited release. The Cooler was primarily lensed in Reno.
In an episode of the Sundance Channel series Anatomy of a Scene, director Wayne Kramer and members of his cast and crew discussed various aspects of The Cooler. In order to show Bernie's evolution from loser to winner, costume designer Kristin M. Burke dressed him in suits and clothes that progressively became better fits. Early in the film, the character resembles a boy dressed in his father's oversized clothing. By the end, Bernie is not only wearing the right size suit, but he has accessorized it with a brightly colored shirt and tie that represent his sunnier disposition. Lighting schemes designed by cinematographer Jim Whitaker also contributed to documenting Bernie's progression. In early scenes, his face is kept in the shadows, but later he is filmed in a spotlight and backlit to make him stand out from everything behind him.
The Golden Phoenix Reno, which was already scheduled for a total condominium refurbishment, was used as the interior of the Shangri-La. The Golden Phoenix was finally closed for building rehab in 2006, and since then has been undergoing a conversion to condominiums, which are named The Montage. Golden Phoenix Reno casino employees were used extensively in the filming of The Cooler. The hotel buildings demolished during the closing credits are the Aladdin, the Sands, the Landmark, and the Dunes hotels.
The song "Almost Like Being in Love", used to mark Bernie's transition from mournful sad sack to winner, was written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for the stage musical Brigadoon.
According to the 2006 documentary film This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the MPAA originally rated the film NC-17 because of a glimpse of Maria Bello's pubic hair during a sex scene. An edited version rated R was released in theaters. A director's cut has been broadcast by the Independent Film Channel and Cinemax.
The Cooler, budgeted at under $4 million, grossed $8,291,572 in the United States and $2,173,216 in foreign markets for a total worldwide box office of $10,464,788. The Cooler earned about $40 million more with DVD and online sales.
The film received generally positive reviews from critics with considerable praise for Alec Baldwin's performance. Writing for The New York Times, A.O. Scott said, "The setting ... is a little tired, and the premise is pretty hokey. Mr. Kramer, rather than trying to discover anything new, is content to recycle familiar characters and story lines. The script ... and the direction are skillful, if occasionally gimmicky ... Luckily this picture is rescued from cliché by the quality of the acting, and Mr. Kramer wisely gives the actors room to work."
Review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 77% "Certified Fresh" rating based on 171 reviews with the consensus reading: "A small movie with superb performances." On Metacritic, the film holds a rating of 69/100 based on 36 reviews indicating "generally positive reviews".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said the film "has a strange way of being broad and twisted at the same time, so that while we surf the surface of the story, unexpected developments are stirring beneath ... This is a movie without gimmicks, hooks or flashy slickness ... The acting is on the money, the writing has substance, the direction knows when to evoke film noir and when ... to get fancy."
In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers rated the film 3½ out of a possible four stars and added, "Wayne Kramer, who co-wrote the scrappy script with Frank Hannah, makes a potent directing debut and strikes gold with the cast... Top of the line is Baldwin, whose revelatory portrayal of an old Vegas hard-liner in thrall to the town's faded allure is the stuff Oscars are made of. From James Whitaker's seductive camerawork to Mark Isham's lush score, The Cooler places all the smart bets and hits the jackpot."
Mark Holcomb of The Village Voice said, "Taking a page from the Sin City cinema revisionist's handbook, The Cooler mimics the Vegas insider's perspective of Casino (without Scorsese's fetishistic attention to detail), the seedy/saccharine insouciance of FX's Lucky (devoid of quirky chutzpah), and the couch-potato glitz of NBC's Las Vegas ... What's left never gels as fantasy, drama, or romantic comedy... [the] film never amounts to more than a cute idea stretched to poker-chip thinness."Wins
National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor (Alec Baldwin, winner)
Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture (Maria Bello, winner)
Vancouver Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor (Baldwin, winner)
Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor (Baldwin, winner)
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture (Baldwin, nominee)
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (Baldwin, nominee)
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture (Bello, nominee)
Satellite Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama (William H. Macy, nominee)
Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture (Baldwin, nominee)
Satellite Award for Best Original Screenplay (Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer, nominees)
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role - Motion Picture (Baldwin, nominee)
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role - Motion Picture (Bello, nominee)