Fine acting trumps Vegas feel in 'The Cooler'

Alec Baldwin and William H. Macy star in "The Cooler," now playing at Butler Plaza.

Published: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 11:31 p.m.
In "The Cooler" William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a man who is not just prodigiously unlucky but also the cause of unluckiness in others. He is employed by a Las Vegas casino owner named Shelly (Alec Baldwin) to terminate the winning streaks, something he can do merely by showing his sad-sack face at a hot blackjack table or slot machine.
The setting of "The Cooler," the first feature directed by Wayne Kramer, is a little tired, and the premise is pretty hokey. Kramer, rather than trying to discover anything new, is content to recycle familiar characters and story lines.
The script (written by him and Frank Hannah) and the direction are skillful, but you can't help thinking back on many other small-scale film-noir updates from the past decade that have taken similar advantage of a neon Las Vegas and the ready-made themes of ruin and redemption the city seems to offer.
Luckily, this picture is rescued by the quality of the acting, and Kramer wisely gives the actors room to work.
Bernie, with his bad haircut, decent suits and hangdog smile, is clearly resigned to the short end of the stick. He lives in a drab motel room from which his pet cat has fled, and when he sits down at the casino bar for a cup of coffee, the cream pitcher is always empty.
Bernie's luck starts to change when he meets Natalie (Maria Bello), a cocktail waitress who seduces him and sticks around.
Suddenly a life that had seemed too bad to be believed feels too good to be true, and the dramatic core of the movie is Bernie's teetering tightrope walk between deliverance and calamity.
His long-lost, ill-mannered son (Shawn Hatosy) blows into town with a pregnant wife (Estrella Warren) and a carload of petty scams and transparent guilt trips.
Baldwin, meanwhile, plays Shelly as a brute and a sentimentalist, swiveling elegantly from viciousness to self-pity, from utter rottenness to something that might be mistaken for nobility.
Macy, as he did in "Panic," makes his character both sympathetic and believable. Bernie may be hapless and defeated, but he holds on to enough dignity to keep from being a complete sap, and his instinctive decency is never inflated into sainthood.
There is a slyness about this loser that makes him intriguing as well as pitiable, and Natalie's deepening affection for him, which might have tested the audience's skepticism, is wonderfully credible. Bello, in spite of a shaky tough-girl accent, is warm and real, words that might also describe the sex scenes between her and Macy.
These are explicit, but also awkward and funny, and the actors gamely remove their vanity along with their clothes. Theirs are not sculptured movie-star bodies - there are some sags and creases on display - but this makes the characters seem more real and makes their interaction sexier than the usual movie-star grappling.

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