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Lions Gate (DVD), ASIN B0001EFV7C

As the camera slides over Las Vegas, we absorb a child's fantasy of hope in the night. Every surface glitters with polish and gems, promising a magic realm full of nobility and generosity. Once on the ground, however, we bump up against life's ugly customers. All the patrons of the Shangri-La, for instance, seem so bent on gain that loss always stands in the corner, ready with sad commiseration.

dvd: the cooler This reality even possesses a name: Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy). His face reveals sadness pouted down into the cheeks. His hair appears to be a clothes brush someone left on his head accidentally. His clothes leave no memory: nondescript and untailored, they simply accompany him on depressing journeys. As a "Cooler," his job description reads, "Sit down beside a gambler until he gives up."

So goes his talent: His name sounds like "lose," and his presence brings the kiss of death. Even he can't imagine kissing anybody who wouldn't yell, "Yuck!"

As false as his setting remains, Bernie performs his job nobly. Thus arises irony: A good man must be worth much more than the price of his suit. The best-dressed and coifed gentleman in the Shangri-La depends on sadness itself to keep his business in the black. Winners cannot be allowed to walk off with all the overwrought lucre. The manager (Alec Baldwin) clings to poor Bernie like his very own lucky charm.

Unbeknownst to the schlemiel, his boss hires a waitress (Maria Bello) to keep him under his thumb. This underhanded strategy boomerangs in the extreme. This movie tests the coincidence of love and luck. Betting on seduction, Baldwin loses when Maria falls for the only man she ever met who expects nothing from her. Simultaneously, Baldwin fails because, with love in his pocket, Bernie gains the capacity to laugh.

From the moment these two lovers warm to each other, Las Vegas begins to release its power over them. Despite apprehension, they then undertake a dangerous battle for freedom. The Cooler pulls no punches as it rolls back the glamour and unveils the enforcers who keep men and women more in love with money than each other. When Bernie's son and new girlfriend become the means for extortion, his life seems over -- again.

The battles of casinos loom greater than any individual. So, his manager may value him as a natural killjoy, but the boss of bosses listens to technical consultants. These Harvard men know how to wedge themselves in -- and Bernie out.

Between hit men and techies, what chance do human beings enjoy for a good day anywhere? The test case of Bernie the Born Loser Who Finds Not Luck But Courage allows wiggle room for hope to creep into life on the dark side. His dream girl needs a good haircut too, but, when they discover mutual affection, their odds leap exponentially. What good fortune to find this film. It sets free spirits flying.

Meg Curtis

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