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(2003) (William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin) (R)

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Drama: A casino worker faces the wrath of his old school boss when his love for a cocktail waitress robs him of his power to cool other gamblers' good luck.
Shelly Kaplow (ALEC BALDWIN) is an old school casino operator in Las Vegas who doesn't like what Sin City has turned into. Nor does he like the fact that owner Nicky "Fingers" Bonnatto (ARTHUR J. NASCARELLA) has brought in Larry Sokolov (RON LIVINGSTON), a young maverick who wants to make various changes. He wants to start by jettisoning veteran performer Buddy Stafford (PAUL SORVINO) in favor of the more modern act provided by Johnny Capella (JOEY FATONE).

Shelly still has an ace up his sleeve, however, in the form of Bernie Lootz (WILLIAM H. MACY), one of the unluckiest guys on the Strip. In fact, Bernie's bad luck is so contagious that Shelly uses him on the casino floor as a "cooler" who steals gamblers' luck when they suddenly get hot.

Having paid off his debt to Shelly for gambling debts incurred long ago. Bernie wants to retire, especially after meeting and immediately falling for Natalie Belisario (MARIA BELLO), a new cocktail waitress at the casino who seems to like him as well.

Bernie's good fortunes, however, are short-lived. His deadbeat son, Mikey (SHAWN HATOSY), and his pregnant girlfriend Charlene (ESTELLA WARREN) suddenly show up, wanting money and looking to make some quick bucks - legally or not - at the casino. That obviously doesn't sit well with Shelly, but more troubling to him is that Bernie's new good mood has apparently siphoned his "cooling" abilities.

As he hopes to get out of the business and live a life without bad luck, Bernie must deal with various forces and developments that apparently don't want any of that to happen.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
A beautiful girlfriend or wife will often have an ordinary guy's friends referring to him as a "lucky bastard." The local lottery commercials use the character "Lady Luck" in their commercials. And Frank Sinatra (and many others) sang a wishful thought that "luck be a lady tonight." Accordingly, one gets the impression that those of the fairer gender have a way with the positive side of that slippery and unpredictable entity.

Aside from when they encounter such fortunate beings, you may ask where men fall into the equation. If you were to believe the events in "The Cooler," they'd be middle aged guys with such bad fortunes that they'd have the ability to suck luck out of anyone and most any situation. Of course, many a woman would say she already knew and/or experienced that phenomenon firsthand.

In the film, the brilliant William H. Macy ("Welcome to Collinwood," "Fargo") plays such a guy with that titular nickname who literally can cool gamblers' luck in the casino where he's worked for many a year under the thumb of its old school operator embodied by Alec Baldwin ("The Cat in the Hat," "Glengarry Glen Ross").

As such, writer/director Wayne Kramer (making his feature debut) -- who works from a script he penned with co-writer Frank Hannah (also making his debut) -- should feel lucky that few people saw or were even aware of another small "indie" film, "Intacto."

That 2002 release also featured a character employed by a casino to rob hot gamblers of their good luck. While that film was also all about luck in its various forms, the two pictures are otherwise decidedly different. Here, the sad sack protagonist simply wishes to leave the casino -- and hopefully his perpetual bad luck -- behind as he starts life anew. And what better way to do that then by lucking out and finding a beautiful young woman who seems just as attracted to him as he is to her?

Lady Luck would seem to have found him, but her sulking sibling -- bad luck -- can't let Macy's character off the hook so easily. Nor can Baldwin's who needs him to remain profitable, and thus begins yet another potential disaster in the protagonist's life. Or will life's wheel of fortune finally give him a good spin?

With a backstage look at the clashing of the theme park Vegas mentality with the Strip of old, the film unfolds at a leisurely pace, occasionally punctuated with bouts of sexuality and violence. The result is a fairly engaging picture that benefits from a decent story and strong performances by its cast. Macy, as usual, is at the top of his game and makes us care about his character who seems so miserable that you can't help but root for the guy to get a break.

It's his two main co-stars, however, who really shine in the spotlight. Mario Bello ("Auto Focus," "Payback") is terrific as the young woman and fellow casino worker who suddenly drops into his life and brightens it considerably. There are other facets to her character that I won't go into for fear of giving away too much. Needless to say, her character is more complex than first imagined, and the result is arguably Bello's best work.

The same could be said about Alec Baldwin as their boss. While certainly not a flattering role, it's a commanding one and the actor jumps into it full force, resulting in a scary, three-dimensional villain who's obviously a first-rate antagonist and memorably screen creation. Don't be surprised when various accolades and award nominations come Baldwin's way.

The likes of Shawn Hatosy ("A Guy Thing," "Outside Providence"), Estella Warren ("Kangaroo Jack," "Planet of the Apes"), Ron Livingston ("Adaptation," "Office Space"), Paul Sorvino ("The Firm," "Nixon") and even Joey Fatone ("On the Line," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding") are all fine in their roles and add various levels of texture and subplots to the main storyline.

If there's any main complaint about the way the film plays out, it's that it occasionally gets a bit melodramatic. That's especially true in the third act when demands are made, ultimatums issued and things are resolved. It's not a horrible or debilitating flaw, but it is apparent. As is the fact that the film never really took off and blew me away like I imagined it might.

Everything is executed in at least a competent fashion (and usually much more than that), but it just felt to me that something extra was missing from the overall effort to nudge it from good to great. Perhaps that was just me on the day I saw it (suffering from movie overload as usual), and viewers may have different responses.

Whatever, the case, "The Cooler" is a fairly engaging tale of luck - good, bad and both manmade and naturally occurring - executed with some terrific performances by its main cast. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 13, 2003 / Posted December 19, 2003

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