Rated R - Running Time: 1:41 - Released 11/26/03

William H. Macy has certainly made a name for himself playing pathetic, befuddled losers who are in way over their heads, from Fargo to Boogie Nights, from Pleasantville to Magnolia. His latest part as the title character in Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler is not unlike these previous roles, and he plays it with the effortless finesse we have come to admire, but the territory is becoming a bit familiar. It would be interesting to see him attempting roles markedly different from this stock character type he’s created, but I’m sure most directors don’t even consider him for any such departure. He’s so good in this type of part, why risk it?

Written by Frank Hannah and director Kramer, the film follows Bernie Lootz (Macy), whose luck is so consistently bad he has been hired by Las Vegas’s Shangri-La casino owner Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) as a “cooler”—a person who brings high-rollers’ hot streaks to an end simply by standing beside them. If someone is cleaning up at craps or blackjack, Bernie goes to his table, and bang—lucky streak over. (I have no idea if any such system ever existed at any real casino, but gambling types are often superstitious, so I wouldn’t doubt it.) The pathetic irony of the situation is not lost on Bernie, and he has decided to quit casino work and move away, to seek a life on the outside, where you can tell day from night, where he isn’t making a living simply by being a loser. But Shelly knows he needs Bernie around, so he tries to stack the cards in his own favor by hiring a cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello) to befriend Bernie and give him a reason to stay. The plan backfires spectacularly, however, when Natalie, who is at first serving as a sort of glorified prostitute, actually starts caring for Bernie, who in turn falls for her head over heels.

The problem comes when Bernie’s new love causes him to lose his ability to do his job. Apparently, the old adage “unlucky at cards, unlucky in love” has a converse corollary. His newfound romance reverses his influence on others, and soon he’s causing winners to win even more. This does not sit well with Shelly, of course, who is an advocate of “old-time” casino management—that is, extortion, brute force, mob connections—and has already inflicted lifelong physical damage on Bernie for some past transgression. Bernie and Natalie soon find themselves in his crosshairs, and the fact that Bernie’s good-for-nothing son (Shawn Hatosy) and his young wife (Estella Warren) are scamming the casino doesn’t help matters any.

Macy performs this familiar role as adroitly as ever, making us care for Bernie at first by pitying him, but then growing to care for him as a person who truly deserves to succeed. Bello gives a very real portrayal as Natalie; she’s the embodiment of a good girl who moved to Vegas to become famous but finally had to settle for the seedier side of life, and shows the emotional and physical scars from the journey. And Baldwin, who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this performance, is the quintessential tough guy casino owner, a throwback to the “good old days” when casinos were for adults and if someone got out of line, a lead pipe to the knees was the perfect remedy. There is a subplot about a young advisor (Ron Livingston, Office Space) being hired to update the casino, to bring it in line with the more family-friendly attitude that is prevalent in Vegas today; his part serves to show how Shelly’s character is a dying breed, as is the style of casino he runs.

This is a good film because its principal actors are playing parts they have played before and can do it with their eyes closed. They’re all very good at these characters, but they don’t exactly break any new ground, so if you’re expecting to see new characterizations from Macy, Baldwin, or the others, you may be disappointed. It is notable, however, in that it’s the first time Macy has appeared nude, in several sex scenes which are not terribly arousing, but unpretentiously down-to-earth. So if you’re interested in seeing Macy’s 53-year-old goodies (not to mention Bello’s, which are only 36), then lady luck has smiled upon you. ****

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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