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Born under a bad sign 

William H. Macy gets lucky in love in The Cooler

For all his versatility as a character actor, William H. Macy has found some of his greatest triumphs by playing losers. With his puppy-dog eyes and downcast cheeks, he perfectly lived down to such parts as Fargo's disintegrating car dealer or Boogie Nights' hapless cuckold.

It's impossible to imagine anyone but Macy playing the title role of the Vegas drama The Cooler. Bernie Lootz has such bad luck that the Shangri-La casino pays him to rub his misfortune off on other gamblers and "cool" their winning streaks. He's a classic comic presence, and when he limps through the gaming room with his bad knee, he leaves lemons, snake eyes and crestfallen faces in his wake. All he lacks is a little rain cloud overhead.

The Cooler has essentially a humorous premise, and you can imagine Martin Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson cutting the film down to a hilarious, quickly edited five-minute vignette. Which makes director/co-writer Wayne Kramer's decision to take The Cooler seriously so inexplicable. Not for a minute are we gulled by Kramer's notion of The Cooler as an exploration of honor in gambling dens, and only the film's candid sexual scenes show any real-world insights.

The plot hinges on whether chance will smile on Bernie. Things begin looking up when he starts an out-of-the-blue romance with Natalie (Maria Bello), a world-weary cocktail waitress. When Bernie gets lucky with her, the Shangri-La's slot machines start paying off, and Macy wittily conveys Bernie's gradually dawning confidence.

It may not be subtle when "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" accompanies Natalie's strip tease (revealing a dice tattoo on her cheek), but their initial tryst amusingly conveys what not to do in the bedroom. For their first hook-up Bernie doesn't even take off his tie, and at the moment of his premature release, he sounds like he's being burned.

But The Cooler presents their subsequent couplings with candor and maturity. They take tender liberties with each other and even have moments of childlike giddiness, at one point both sitting up naked and banging the headboard in a goofy parody of ecstasy. Even the photography is lovely, the light illuminating their skin without making their bodies seem airbrushed.

Kramer hints that things won't go well for the new couple, foreshadowed by extreme close-ups of broken mirrors and a spilled salt shaker. Bernie's sleazy son (Shawn Hatosy) and pregnant, coked-up daughter-in-law (Estella Warren) turn up to leech off the father while over-emoting like acting students on their first day of class.

An even bigger obstacle is casino manager Shelly (Alec Baldwin), who plays sadistic mind games on his underlings to keep them in line. Baldwin has found a comeback role in The Cooler, with lines like "Hey, fuck you. And, fuck you," evoking his deliciously hateful turn in Glengarry Glen Ross.

But Baldwin doesn't give a very surprising performance. We get some queasily intimate moments with his Alpha male thug, but Shelly's just not very complicated. One of The Cooler's most annoying aspects is how everyone seems to forget how brutal he is and exclaims, "Shelly, how could you?" after his violent episodes. Duh. Duh to the nth degree.

Shelly embodies old-school Vegas and has contempt for the city's family-friendly attitude as a "Disneyland mook-fest." Kramer himself seems to buy into the attitude that the old-fashioned Shangri-La casino is some kind of beacon of "purity," a theme that's transparently bogus -- the Shangri-La is motivated by nothing more than cheating its clientele. When a sleazy new singer ('N Sync's Joey Fatone) begins pushing out the casino's classy, Sinatra-esque crooner (Paul Sorvino), we feel sympathy for Sorvino's character, but not for the passing of a way of life.

The Cooler's sharpest insights are its smallest ones: Bernie lives at the "Bettor Life Motel." But for all the credibility Macy and Bello bring to their roles, Kramer's attempts to make grander statements come up craps.

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