Love strikes the luckless

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

"The Cooler" is a gritty Las Vegas fantasy - a what-if story. What if the world's unluckiest loser were to suddenly attract a gorgeous blonde who loves him just for who he is? How would that affect his luck and his relationships with others?

The result is a compelling, hopeful drama that features three great performances. But it's not without flaws, including a meaningless subplot involving the cooler's wayward son, an obnoxious jazz score and a ridiculously pat ending.

In this fantasy version of Sin City, casinos employ coolers whose job it is to "cool" down anyone on a hot streak. In the opening scene, we see a high-stakes gambler making a killing in roulette. Enter Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy), who limps his way through the cavernous casino and past the man at the roulette table. Almost absentmindedly, Bernie's hand brushes against the side of the wheel, and, just like that, the gambler's luck dries up.

We are told that some coolers use tricks and gimmicks as they try to protect the casino's bottom line, but Bernie is different. All he has to do is be himself. His bad luck just rubs off.

Bernie's ability to turn luck sour makes him valuable to old-school casino operator Shelly Kaplow, played to evil perfection by Alec Baldwin. Bernie is only a few days away from fulfilling his debt to Shelly and has made it clear he wants to leave Vegas.

The only thing that could possibly make Bernie think of staying is a beautiful, down-on-her luck waitress named Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello). Bernie has a crush on her, but knows he doesn't have a chance. He is more than a little shocked when Natalie starts showing interest. Almost overnight, Bernie's luck changes - which should be good news but isn't considering his line of work. The casino starts losing money, much to Shelly's consternation.

Although Macy ostensibly stars in "The Cooler," Baldwin steals the picture with his fierce portrayal of a man who sees time passing him by. His character believes that the Strip has lost its seedy soul as it has pursued a more family-friendly image. He doesn't see real casinos anymore; he sees amusement parks.

Baldwin justly deserves his Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. He has played similarly dark characters in the past - most notably in "Glengary Glen Ross" - and Baldwin ratchets his performance up a notch. Shelly is an intense, violent man, but Baldwin brings an unusual level of pathos to the role.

Macy, as always, is excellent as the schmuck at the center of this tale, while Bello has the difficult task of making the audience believe that her character could ever fall for Bernie. She pulls it off with a heartfelt, realistic performance. And her scenes with Macy are touching and intimate.

The result is an entertaining, if not perfect, fantasy in which love finds the luckless.

The Cooler

Rating: ***

Starring: William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello and Paul Sorvino.

Director: Wayne Kramer.

Parent's guide: R.

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

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