Get unlimited digital access to baltimoresun.com. $0.99 for 4 weeks.

Movie review: 'The Cooler'

3-1/2 stars (out of 4)

A "cooler" is someone who has such an anti-Midas touch that casino operators keep them around to cool off customers' hot hands. That's the lore, anyway, though there's probably never been a more proficient cooler than Bernie Lootz, who needs only to brush past someone to turn a lucky-sevens streak into snake eyes central.

In "The Cooler," Bernie's luck is so lousy that even his cat has abandoned him, and he can't pour cream into his coffee without finding the little pitcher down to its last drops. Bernie, in other words, is a loser of epic proportions - and perhaps no actor has developed more expertise in playing losers than William H. Macy.

If you'd thought Macy had explored every nook and cranny of loserville in such movies as "Fargo" and "Magnolia," think again: He makes Bernie into someone brand new. The 53-year-old actor by now has a hangdog expression to rival Buster Keaton's; the sad-sack story of his life plays out on his face, and it's a good read.

Because Bernie never indulges in self-pity, we sympathize with rather than pity him. He's been down so long that he's resigned to the curb-level view, yet he plans to keep plugging away to get his liberation from Las Vegas's old-time Shangri-La Casino, where owner Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) has been employing him as a cooler to work off a longstanding debt.

So when Bernie falls for a cocktail waitress, Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello) - when his droopy face breaks out in a radiant smile - not only does sunshine practically stream off the screen, but something even more amazing happens. Macy - that is, Bernie - becomes sexy.

'Tis the season for middle-aged love stories, but none is more winning than this debut from director Wayne Kramer, who wrote the script with Vegas regular Frank Hannah. "The Cooler" is a tweaked version of your basic luck-be-a-lady tale as well as a mud-in-your-eye toast to the Vegas of old.

Bernie, see, is looking for a new beginning as the Shangri-La is nearing the end of its run. Shelly proudly views the old casino as an oasis of hard liquor, committed gamblers and Rat Pack-era entertainment amid a Disneyland of family attractions and plastic glamour. Not for nothing does Kramer cast Paul Sorvino as the club's heroin-addicted singer and Joey Fatone of 'NSync as the would-be replacement being pushed by the casino's callow consultant Larry Sokolov ("Office Space" star Ron Livingston having moved to the dark side).

Shelly is the film's most complex character, as Baldwin gives his most forceful, nuanced performance since he had David Mamet dialogue to deliver (as in "Glengarry Glen Ross"). Shelly is the main antagonist, the man who can prevent Bernie from finding happiness, and he's a brutal bully prone to startling, violent outbursts. Yet he also has a last-samurai aura about him; you know that when Shelly is defeated, the bureaucrats will take over.

Still, the movie belongs to Bernie and Natalie, with Bello shining in an open-hearted, leading-lady performance. A ratings-board controversy caused a split-second of movie sex to be trimmed since the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but you don't lose the sense that this is an uncommonly tender, intimate romance.

Shawn Hatosy and Estella Warren are effective in supporting roles as Bernie's no-goodnik son and daughter-in-law, though Kramer can't figure out how to work them into the movie's resolution. The director also has a tendency to overplay certain hands. Bernie's luck blows between hot and cold faster than Chicago temperature swings in November, and we don't need to see four variations on the coffee creamer stunt to get the point.

Handsomely shot by James Whitaker, with a few nifty transitions (such as a flipping casino chip morphing into an Alka-Seltzer tablet), the movie captures that old Vegas neon glow that knows no time of day. What's missing is a visual representation of the encroaching new Vegas.

"The Cooler" can be forgiven for stretching credulity at times because at heart it's more a fable than documentary about a place rooted in dreams. The movie boasts one of those rare twist endings that strikes the right emotional chords, and it deserves credit for laying its bets on a sexy, sympathetic Macy. Sometimes long shots pay off.

"The Cooler"
Directed by Wayne Kramer; written by Kramer, Frank Hannah; photographed by James Whitaker; edited by Arthur Coburn; production designed by Toby Corbett; music by Mark Isham; produced by Michael Pierce, Sean Furst. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday, Dec. 19. Running time: 1:41. MPAA rating: R (strong sexuality, violence, language and some drug use).
Bernie Lootz - William H. Macy
Shelly Kaplow - Alec Baldwin
Natalie Belisario - Maria Bello
Mikey - Shawn Hatosy
Larry Sokolov - Ron Livingston
Buddy Stafford - Paul Sorvino

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Comments
Loading