Monday, February 18, 2008

Poker and Casino Movies Cheating Theatergoers

Some poker and casino movies are so bad, they're actually cheating the audience. With the much anticipated Kevin Spacey film "21" due out next month, conversation will again abound about gambling movies. Spacey's film is the story of the MIT Blackjack Card-Counting Team, and although I find both the book and the team's purported earnings highly exaggerated, I haven't seen the film so I can't yet criticize the screening of Ben Mezrich's book "Bringing Down the House."

There is however, a worst gambling movie of all time, and it really did cheat the public because its entire premise is nothing but hogwash. I am talking about the movie "The Cooler" with Alec Baldwin and William H. Macy. The plot in a nutshell is this:

Bernie (Macy) is a troubled gambler with markers all over town, including a big tab at the Shangri-La casino run by his friend Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin). When the debts go bad Shelly saves Bernie’s life by covering them, then puts Bernie on the floor of the Shangri-La, where he will pay off his debt day by day by being Shelly's "Cooler."

Shelly had recognized that Bernie’s luck was so bad it was contagious, so he made Bernie the casino’s weapon to cool off all winning streaks going against the casino. All it takes, Shelly decides, is Bernie’s mere presence at a hot table to kill the winning streak. If he should so much as touch the dice, you’re looking at the Las Vegas version of a nuclear winter.

Then when Bernie is just days away from fulfilling his debt to Shelly, he meets Natalie (Maria Bello), a new cocktail waitress at the Shangri-La. Natalie sweeps Bernie off his feet, and after a night of much-needed raucous sex Bernie is in love.
When Natalie starts to love him back, Bernie’s luck starts to change. Feeling good for the first time in years, Bernie can’t wait to leave Las Vegas and move on with his life with the woman of his dreams.

But Shelly can’t afford to lose Bernie, especially since the partners in the Shangri-La have sent in Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston) to shake up the place. Just itching to take over, Sokolov sees the hidden potential in Shangri-La. He envisions a new, slick palace with three floors of gaming, an entertainment center and a roller coaster – everything Shelly’s beloved “old school” casino is not.

Under increasing pressure from Sokolov and fearful that his beloved hotel and his old ways are about to be history, Shelly becomes willing to do anything to keep Bernie and his cooling abilities, which have really gone on the fritz since Natalie opened her heart to him. One night, the Shangri-La loses close to a million dollars because of Bernie’s newfound happiness.


Well, come on! Believing that a "cooler" can walk around a craps table and make winning crap shooters lose just because of his presence is about as believable as believing that both Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds never took a performance enhancing drug. In casino terms, that would be tantamount to a person being able to see through the backs of legitimate playing cards to ascertain their values. And then of course comes the big plot twist: Bernie falls so hotly in love that he can't cool off Shelly's players anymore. If that's not enough, how 'bout the name of Shelly's casino, Shangri-La? Whatever that lacks in originality is made up for by sheer stupidity.

So next time "The Cooler" pops up on cable, do yourself a favor and go see Spacey's "21," or rent some other film that has nothing to do with poker or gambling.