- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

Lady luck has never so much as glanced at Bernie Lootz. The central figure in director Wayne Kramer’s “The Cooler” radiates misfortune.

He’s a professional patsy whose casino job has him derailing gamblers on hot streaks by merely brushing past them.

Only when luck starts turning his way does his life emit a flickering light. It takes another deft turn from star William H. Macy to keep it aflame.

“The Cooler” builds from magic-based realism — that a certifiable loser can literally spread bad luck like a disease — and uses it for a sweeter-than-expected love story.

The film’s too pat ending is as jarring as some of the plot’s volcanic violence, but by then the story has long since beguiled us.

We first meet Bernie a few days before his “retirement” from the Shangri-La casino.

He’s nearly paid off his debt to Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin, returning to his “Glengarry Glen Ross” form), an old-school casino boss who keeps the gambling floor frozen in time.

Even more enticing than his pending freedom is Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello), a naive cocktail waitress inexplicably drawn to Bernie.

He can’t believe his good fortune. Shelly can’t accept the fact that he’s losing his casino’s safest bet, especially with a gambling consultant (Ron Livingston) breathing down his meaty neck.

“The Cooler” serves as a much-needed corrective to NBC’s glamorized “Las Vegas” drama. We don’t see gamblers strutting across the floor followed by a trail of chips and platinum blondes. Instead, they shuffle along in a dreary casino that swallows up light and hope.

Cinematographer Jim Whitaker paints a backdrop as ungainly as Bernie’s collapsing visage. Mr. Macy does the rest, turning a deadbeat into a figure worth our pity and, ultimately, our admiration. He’s matched by Miss Bello, so good in television’s “ER” years earlier and finally coming into her own on-screen. She illuminates a thoroughly illogical role with her brassy beauty. The pair’s love scenes are, by turns, graphic and loving — escalating their romance in ways most movie love scenes cannot.

Plenty of ink already has been spilled praising Mr. Baldwin’s incendiary turn here. While he’s earned it, his character as written by screenwriters Mr. Kramer and Frank Hannah deserves the lion’s share of praise. He’s a villain with a loyalty to the status quo, a man not above cruelty but with a curious sense of right and wrong, and Mr. Baldwin captures every side of him.

Some moviegoers won’t swallow “The Cooler’s” main conceit, the cooler job itself. It smacks of plot convenience, and its fantastical nature seems at odds with the film’s gritty posturing.

Swallow hard. This story and its very flawed characters deserve our attention.

The film’s one true cheat is its denouement, which seems lifted from a mainstream production.

Still, “The Cooler” is a good bet to resuscitate Mr. Baldwin’s career, give Miss Bello a deserved boost and offer audiences a refreshingly offbeat romance.

***

WHAT: “The Cooler”

RATING: R (Nudity, sexual situations, jarring violence, coarse language)

CREDITS: Directed by Wayne Kramer. Written by Mr. Kramer and Frank Hannah. Cinematography by Jim Whitaker. Production design by Toby Corbett.

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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