Friday, December 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'The Cooler' shines as a tale of life and luck in old-school Vegas

Seattle Times movie critic

Nearly all of Wayne Kramer's Las Vegas fable "The Cooler" takes place in artificial light; scenes unfold on the cavernous floor of an old-school casino where day and night merge, dimly lit back offices, or musty apartments where curtains are drawn firmly against the light. It's a strange, free-floating world, and it's become a prison for Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy), a "cooler" at the Shangri-La casino who dreams of going somewhere "where there are clocks on the walls."

A cooler, in this movie's old-school Vegas parlance, is someone whose luck is so bad that he can "cool" a table just by standing nearby. And it just takes one look at Bernie to see that he's got rotten luck — as played by Macy (who, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman, is king of the indie-movie shlub), he's got greasy, flattened-down hair, nastily wrinkled suits, a pronounced limp and a perpetually worried look. "People get next to me, their luck turns," he explains to Natalie (Maria Bello), the pretty cocktail waitress who's inexplicably flirting with him.

Luck, as it turns out, is a character in this movie, as much so as Bernie, Natalie and Shelly (Alec Baldwin), the Shangri-La owner with a simmering temper and a love for the old ways. It's as if luck is floating around Bernie, lowering or raising his spirits; it affects whether the casino's weathered bartender (Ellen Greene, a cigarette dangling from her lips as if it's stuck there) has cream for his coffee, or whether his cat comes home. And his affair with Natalie — they have a romping sex scene set to "Luck Be a Lady" — seems like the kind of luck that could turn his life around. Or maybe not.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"The Cooler," with William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Shawn Hatosy, Ron Livingston, Paul Sorvino, Estella Warren. Directed by Wayne Kramer, from a screenplay by Frank Hannah and Kramer. 101 minutes. Rated R for strong sexuality, violence, language and some drug use. Harvard Exit.

Kramer, making his feature directorial debut here (he also co-wrote the screenplay), is clearly in love with the atmosphere of old-time Vegas; the jazzy blare of half-melancholy music as people line up to part with their money, dreaming of a jackpot that will change their lives.

Shelly's casino is a small one, a bit down at the heels, and he runs it like an old-school dictator, taking miscreants into his office to be dealt with by thugs. He's deeply resentful of a consultant (Ron Livingston) sent by the partners to spruce up the place, suggesting such fixes as "uplifting wallpaper."

"The Cooler" has moments of shocking violence; it doesn't sugarcoat the code by which Shelly lives.

And while it does occasionally shortchange its characters — Natalie's heart of gold, for example, feels like it could only happen in the movies — it provides plenty of moments for the actors to shine. Baldwin's ice-blue eyes, Bello's bright, chipmunky smile and Macy's wary gaze (does any actor do anxiety better?) stay with you when the movie's over, like those last few coins in a gambler's pocket, saved for a rainy day.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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