Director misplays great `Cooler' hand


January 09, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Cooler has graphic sex and primed performers, but I'd rather have been watching a repeat of the Twilight Zone gambling episode "The Fever," which at least gave you the pleasure of seeing a talking, vindictive one-armed bandit, and, with a half-hour length, didn't wear out its welcome.

The performers in this new, Las Vegas-set independent feature give their all to the story of an out-of-fashion casino owner (Alec Baldwin) and the "cooler" (William H. Macy) he employs to jinx hot tables. But not even the enticing insertion of a waitress with a heart of gold (Maria Bello) who falls for the cooler and changes his luck can sustain this film's attempt to become a poor man's Casino, which was itself, after all, a beggar's banquet.

There's something airy and amusing about this movie's hardboiled karma -- the idea that if you feel good your luck will be good. And when the tone doesn't drag him down, Macy gives a ticklish Sad Sack performance of a man so mired in gloom that he genuinely appreciates his boss (and friend!) for busting one of his knees over a debt.

Macy's anti-hero has gone beyond self-doubt: he has no doubt that he's a total loser. So when Bello's astrology-spouting drink-slinger falls for him, and he becomes a winner in spite of himself, you look forward to a series of comic reversals. After all, Bello and Macy are both comic figures: She's a woman who's been around the block but is just waiting for the right man to give her a home address. He's a worm who turns into a glow-worm and then into a hard-knock Galahad.

The humor fades the more the movie wants to be about Baldwin, who mingles loyalty and betrayal as he struggles to halt the homogenization of Vegas and to maintain its fading Rat Pack vibe. For a Sinatra-phile like Baldwin, the wee small hours of the morning are high noon. That's when he conducts total war against the clean-cut, corrupt Harvard man (Office Space's Ron Livingston) who aims to sully the "purity" of Baldwin's temple to chance by turning it into a family entertainment palace.

Baldwin's character is on a fool's errand. (So's the movie.) The numbers run against him now. He thinks people will have to go to his place for old-school sizzle when they decide they want it again; too bad that day is not on the horizon. The director, Wayne Kramer, who co-wrote the script with Frank Hannah, hopes to make Baldwin the bad guy while also making him the high priest of post-war Vegas, where sin could go to play.

And the actor exploits his casino boss' indignation and volatility for everything they're worth, coaxing nuances out of a repeated curse or a slight change in conventional phrasing, such as "Take my words for it." But Kramer's script doesn't ring any changes on its end-of-an-era themes, and his heavy-handed direction dunks our heads into Baldwin's foul and brutal depths. When Macy exclaims that he's got to get out of this place, you agree with him -- except he's talking about Vegas and you're thinking about the movie.

The actors keep plugging away, grabbing at choice moments in the dialogue: Macy is touching when he tells a newly scarred Bello, "Look in my eyes: I am the only mirror you're ever gonna need." What's frustrating is that the movie should be so much better, or at least more entertaining. With Baldwin, Macy and Bello, director Kramer is holding three of a kind; add on Shawn Hatosy as Macy's sleazy son and Livingston as the Mob corporation man, and he has a full house. But he doesn't know the strength of his own hand. He resorts to grotesquerie and degrading violence. As a filmmaker, he folds.

The Cooler

Starring William H. Macy, Maria Bello and Alec Baldwin

Directed by Wayne Kramer

Rated R

Released by Lions Gate

Time 101 minutes


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