With her re-view of Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler, Stevi Costa journeys back into childhood memories of Reno and leprechauns-on-rainbow mugs.
The promise of luck colored a lot of my family vacations as a child. Once or twice a year, my parents and I would drive up to the Lake Tahoe/Reno area on the California/Nevada border. They were certainly not big gamblers, but the entire purpose of going to Tahoe/Reno was usually not to ski (as that was not something they could do with their not-so-sporting daughter, although they had been avid skiers in the early ‘80s), but to sightsee. To visit casinos. To walk around in downtown Reno and look at the architecture of excess. To be barraged by the sound of slot machines, the slow disappearance of coins and the electronic whirring of possible triple cherries and lucky sevens. To get free mugs.
The free mugs were always procured at Fitzgerald’s casino in Reno, NV. In the early 90s, Fitzgerald’s employed a barker outside dressed like a footman from Oz who would hand out passes to a place deep inside the casino known as “The Lucky Forest.” A passerby would take a token deep into the casino, navigating the roulette wheels and slots and craps tables and the buffet to find a replica of some kind of Irish bog/Hobbiton, where you would wait in line amid a museum of lucky and unlucky artifacts (ladders, black cats, horseshoes, etc.) to trade your pass for a scratch-off card. The scratch-off card, which my parents always let me scratch for them, would then get you a prize: keyrings, pens, packs of playing cards, mugs (all emblazoned with the name of the casino), or, if you were really lucky, cold hard cash. I never saw anyone win cold hard cash. But I did see a lot of the other stuff. We would stop by once a day when we visited Reno to see how our luck might turn out. A pen on Friday, playing cards on Saturday, a mug on Sunday. The freebies at Fitzgerald’s were unbeatable. This is why my family owned a set of 12 Fitzgerald’s mugs that they’d collected over various trips to Reno. Every couple of years they’d change the designs, so we have some that have leprechauns riding rainbows, and some with elegant neon green shamrocks, and some with the stately name of the casino in emerald green script. For my family, this was great kitsch. We won big at Fitzgerald’s without spending a dime.
But of course we did lay some dimes there. Or at least some nickels. The thing about hotel-casinos in Reno, NV is that you can bring a minor into the casino, but they cannot loiter on the gambling floor. So it was safe for my parents to ferry me to the Lucky Forest and out, my little hands filled with mugs and keychains, but I couldn’t, say, stand by my mom while she spent $5 on the nickel slots. I might be why my parents weren’t big gamblers. One of them would take me outside and wait with them (or go poke around a gift shop) while the other committed to playing $2 on penny slots or $5 on nickel slots. They always played low stakes, with finite amounts of money and time. The casino never really made much money off my parents, but they did make some. And that was exactly the function of The Lucky Forest: to draw in some customers with the promise of a guaranteed win (in the form of a mug), and hope that they get distracted by everything else in that shiny emerald green palace and pay dearly for that “free” mug.
Wayne Kramer’s 2003 indie The Cooler is also about the promise of luck, and what role this invisible, intangible commodity plays within speculative capital. Set in the Golden Shangri-La, a casino from the Rat Pack era, hidden away from the Strip on Las Vegas’ Fremont Street, we’re introduced to a relic of a Vegas contemporary viewers no longer recognize. The opening credits sequence takes us back in time, zooming in on spectacular modern casinos like the Bellagio, the Wynn, the Luxor, and then eventually the oldies that have somehow stood the test of time like the Flamingo, Harrah’s, and finally the Golden Shangri-La. While we know that many older casinos stayed in business by continually modernizing, the Shangri-La has not. We know this through their use of the title character, Bernie, a “cooler” whose job is to walk the casino floor to “change the temperature of the room” when a table gets hot with winnings. Bernie, played by affable hangdog William H. Macy, is a loser himself, bad luck incarnate. A man working off his own gambling debt by cooling tables for Shelly, the Shangri-La’s general manager who wants to keep his operation running the way it always has. The set designers, casting directors, and actors do a commendable job of making everything about the Shangri-La look like it’s seen better days: Ellen Greene as a bartender looks like she hasn’t slept in 20 years, a cigarette perpetually pursed between her lips, with hair that’s held up possibly by the smoke in which she resides; Paul Sorvino as an aging crooner whose heroin addiction glistens in the perspiration on his upper lip while he performs hollow versions of Frank Sinatra’s classics; Bernie’s motel room, bathed in a shade of green best described as “avocado” and accented in dark walnut and harvest gold trim, which was the height of luxury in 1968 (as my Grandmother’s living room can attest) but now only seems forlorn and static. There’s nothing new or modern about the Shangri-La, and the film wants us to be both nostalgic for this faded golden era of Las Vegas as it falls to the crushing blow of Steve Wynn’s amusement park version of Las Vegas, and to dispel the myth of that mid-century paradise itself.
The Cooler offers us the postmodern nostalgia for a bygone era by pitting the Shangri-La against the looming spectre of the corporation in the form of a buy-out offer from Ron Livingston’s Larry Sokolov. Sokolov pitches Shelly with the prospect of “restoring the Shangri-La to her former glory,” which of course means completely modernizing everything about the day to day operations of the casino: hiring waitresses with bigger breasts, replacing the carpets, changing the lighting, playing music on the casino floor with the mantra “loose, loose, loose” recorded at a subsonic level, and abandoning the use of old-school casino security methods like coolers, and the much more brutal beating of cheaters and con artists. Both options are equally horrible, but in different ways. When Bernie’s son Mikey and his wife Charlotte attempt to con both Bernie and the Shangri-La with a fake pregnancy and a hot run at the craps tables courtesy of some loaded dice, Sokolov offers to take care of things the clean way: putting a black mark on Mikey and Charlotte’s credit, forever ruining them financially. But Shelley insists on taking them both upstairs and breaking Mikey’s kneecaps. The scene is brutal and horrifying (especially as Shelley turns on Charlotte, who we don’t know is faking her pregnancy until he kicks her in the stomach and rips off the pillow she’s been wearing), but no less effective than the clean method. In Sokolov’s modern Vegas, those who try to buck capital are effectively forever flagged as criminals, constantly surveilled and denied full participation in the economy. In Shelly’s, the criminals are also marked – but not digitally. They bear the burden of their crimes physically in their limping gait, in their scarred kneecaps, and that can easily be read by anyone who knows the code. The distinction here is the weight and value of the body within capital. Crushed fingers can’t shoot crap. A busted knee can’t walk off the casino floor. To incapacitate the body of a gambler, of a con artist, effectively means that they have to stay in one place: they can never escape capital and its hold on the body. In Sokolov’s digital punishment, the body doesn’t matter. Con artists can go wherever they want, but no longer freely. What appears as freedom in fact is not. Rather, what seems to be the ability to exist in the world unharmed actually denies participation in the very system they attempted to con. No credit, no capital. And the con is supposed to be about gaming the system, not being outside of it. The film chooses Shelly’s method, offering capital as a brutal nightmare from which there is no escape.
This, coupled with the revelation that Shelly helps Paul Sorvino’s crooner OD, and the utterly lifeless and luckless trap of a life that Bernie leads as Shelly’s favorite cooler, reveals that the nostalgic dream of Rat Pack era Vegas isn’t all glitz, glamour, and martinis, but brutality, loss, and suffering. However, the Steve Wynn alternative isn’t all that much better: although the gloss is brighter and punishment instead becomes disciplinary surveillance, the corporatization of Vegas us just as hollow, a faceless machine veiled by spectacle. Both versions of Vegas lure us in with the promise of luck, and then offer us no escape.
But the inescapable nature of capital seems to be why we need the illusion of luck in the first place. And The Cooler makes no mistake in showing us that Lady Luck is an illusion. Bernie’s remarkable bad luck starts to cool off after he garners the affections of Maria Bello’s cocktail waitress Natalie. He can’t cool a table anymore when she’s around, and virgin slot machines “pop their cherries” for him because of her love for him. Natalie, though, has been paid by Shelly to get close to Bernie to convince him to stay in Vegas even though his contract is up. She presents at first the illusion of romance, but then actually falls for the schmuck and he for her, rendering the Vegas smoke-and-mirrors romance into something real. She becomes Lady Luck herself for Bernie, and that ruins everything for Shelly.
The romance plot is where fairy tale meets noir in The Cooler, and seems to suggest, perhaps too idealistically, that being “lucky in love” is the thing that can help us escape the most dire of circumstances. And though both Bernie and Natalie are beaten and bloodied by Shelly’s thugs in an attempt to end their relationship, they actually do escape. Bernie cashes in on his casino winnings from a hot streak at the tables and drives off with Natalie into the sunset. But a state trooper—one of Shelly’s henchmen in disguise—pulls them over on the side of the road and threatens to kill them until, in what Bernie calls “a stroke of dumb luck,” a drunk driver strikes the henchmen dead as his car careens out of nowhere on the long desert highway. At the same moment, Shelly’s own bosses choose to turn out his lights, and so the old guard collapses and Bernie is free to drive off with his lady luck into the sunset. But as they do, they drive past the sign for the Golden Shangri-La, passing a development site in the desert where a new glistening tower of excess will be resurrected from the ashes of the old casino.
What this scene suggests to me is both that capital is actually inescapable, and that to somehow manage to escape it is purely because one is lucky. As Bernie and Natalie try to drive away, they’re not only threatened with death for leaving, but also charge down the highway right to the site of the casino’s newest desert outpost. And though they presumably drive beyond it, our final image is of this site in the desert with their car driving by. They may escape it because of that “stroke of dumb luck,” but we do not and cannot. Although all of the old guard die, they’re merely replaced with capital’s latest incarnation. Sokolov becomes the new GM of the Shangri-La. Paul Sorvino is replaced by Joey Fatone’s neo-crooner Johnny Capella. And the casino herself gets to rise up in the desert like a mirage. The idea of luck as a possible escape, however, isn’t a real escape because it is built into the nature of speculative capital. Speculation commodities luck itself in a bizarre orouboric construction. I am doubtful of Bernie and Natalie’s fairy tale ending, too, because if we’re to take Sokolov’s threat seriously, they’re being surveilled and disciplined even as they drive off with that pile of cash.
I suppose the mugs are a different story. They’re a sure thing, guaranteed luck. And unlike any money my parents ever won on those nickel and penny slots, the mugs remain. A few years ago, my husband and I went up to Tahoe with some friends for a ski weekend. We’d brought a friend from L.A. with us and I insisted that we go to Fitzgerald’s so they could see The Lucky Forest, so my husband would understand why his in-laws had so damn many mugs from an Irish-themed casino in Vegas’s country bumpkin cousin on the California-Nevada border. I wanted us to come home with more mugs. But when we went, there was no more Lucky Forest. No more mugs, except the ones you could buy in the gift shop. In fact, there wasn’t much in Reno at all, actually. Reno, NV never got the Steve Wynn revitalization that Las Vegas got, and so, like the Golden Shangri-La, Reno fell by the wayside, a bastion of the mid-century that just couldn’t seem to catch the wave of progress. I haven’t been back since, but at the time, which was only in 2008 or 2009, I remember finding Reno to be incredibly sad. I didn’t want to see Reno die. I wanted the city that hosts Hot August Nights (one of the greatest classic car shows in the country) to retain its mid-century glory, but Reno couldn’t compete with the amusement park that is Vegas. It just wasn’t that lucky.
The acting in this movie is pretty superb. Alec Baldwin as Shelly gives some of the best vocal work of his career, and he is both seductive and cruel and sad by turns. He narrowly missed an Oscar nomination for this one, and that’s too bad because his monologue about the glory days of The Golden Shangri-La and his hatred for modern Vegas is as great a piece of writing as any actor could hope to have.
The soundtrack to this movie is also fantastic. That is, if you like sad, oozy, jazzy versions of American standards.
That said, the sex scene to “Luck Be a Lady” is pretty silly.
That said, I strip to this exact version of “Luck Be a Lady.”
That said, I wish Joey Fatone’s neo-crooner character hired actual strippers to be in his act.
There’s a scene that takes place at Circus Circus in which Maria Bello confesses that she gave up her son for adoption. I LOVED Circus Circus as a child. Sometimes, we’d actually stay there on our trips to Reno. Those were the best because my parents would take me to the midway, which was filled with brilliantly noisy carnival games that I could play as long as I wanted. We’d play boomball (which my mom was awesome at), skeeball (which my dad was awesome at), and dozens of other games to win stuffed animals. (One trip, we came home with 14 little stuffed wolves. I had my own wolf pack!) As an adult, I realize that Circus Circus is absolutely the best hotel-casino concept because it has gambling for all ages. I am also impressed by its transmutation of the history of the American circus into a gaming concept. It is quite possibly the most American thing I’ve ever experienced. Framing Maria Bello’s monologue about her lost son in Circus Circus makes it incredibly sad because this place is the most family-friendly casino on the strip. But it’s also sad because on that same trip to Reno in 2008, I also hauled my bestie and my husband to Circus Circus and was totally prepared to play midway games with them and win silly toys like I did with my parents when I was a kid. When we went, it was practically empty. There was no life. No energy. No one playing games. The midway was basically dead, and that broke my heart. I couldn’t show my friends this thing I loved as a child in the way that it was then, and moreover that thing, though still there, was effectively gone. Ridi, Pagliacci.
I found a Fitzgerald’s mug at a church rummage sale last year here in Seattle. I bought it for a quarter.