*The Cooler (R)
Early buzz on The Cooler concerned its racy sex scenes with William H. Macy and Maria Bello. These were hyped as realistic and graphic -- full frontal but with an art house pedigree. However, folks tempted by XXX action for the NPR set will likely face disappointment; sadly, it's just a lot of huff and puff over a little celebrity muff.
But wait! Over-hyped sex aside, director Wayne Kramer has done a remarkable job letting Macy, Bello and Alec Baldwin do their thing in this darkly romantic tale of escaping sin city.
Macy's big blue eyes suggest an innocence that's been eviscerated daily since kindergarten, yet keeps on ticking. He stars as Bernie Lootz, a man whose living is owed to a highly contagious, and somewhat preternatural, bad luck. Reconnoitering the Shangri-La casino, Lootz is deployed to douse the hot streaks of various gamblers. He does this, he says, by being himself.
Bernie's work as a "cooler," we learn, is a relic of the old Las Vegas: Think Sinatra, think Bugsy Siegel, think hookers without Web sites. Keeping the torch of this old ethos is the Shangri-La's owner, Shelly (Baldwin.) Sounding his funeral dirge is a young casino guru (Ron Livingston) out to prove that the Shangri-La's future lies with the same corporate, family-friendly dens that Shelly so actively loathes.
Concurrent with this power struggle is Bernie's relationship with a young but not-so-innocent cocktail waitress, (Bello). The two make a Vegas couple as unlikely as anything since Nicholas Cage and Elizabeth Shue hobbled down the strip eight years earlier.
As Bernie is seduced first by sex and then by love, he finds his luck has whirled 180 degrees overnight. Suddenly, his long lost cat returns to his sleazy motel apartment; the cream that was forever running out in time for his nightly coffee is now overflowing.
But the reversal of fortune proves short-lived. Trouble comes in the form of his son (Shawn Hatosy) and his pregnant wife (Estella Warren). The two quickly guilt Bernie into a sizable donation -- "an investment in your future grandson" -- and quickly turn it around in an unsuccessful attempt to scam the Shangri-La.
Part of Bernie's pre-Maria ennui was his life in debt to Shelly, a gambling debt whose toll is remembered every day in Bernie's lame knee and sad limp. The injury was part of Shelly's gambling debt repayment scheme: kneecapping and six years of indentured servitude.
Instead of resenting the boss who maimed him, Bernie has become something of a house slave; grateful his master let him work off his debt rather than killing him outright. As the film begins, Bernie's on the cusp of repayment and freedom from a town he hates. But when he finds his son facing an identical beatdown, he vouches for him at the cost of an extended sentence.
At times Kramer seems like he's trying too hard to show us the ugly life of Las Vegas. However, this does not stand in the way of enjoying Baldwin's return to playing an alluring scumbag (it's about time!), nor does it lessen the intrigue of a vice culture that persists even when everyone knows the odds are always in the house's favor.
A few of The Cooler's plot twists are best left unmentioned and one final doozy would have been best left out of the script entirely. However, a juicy jazz score by Mark Isham conveys the feel of Vegas' bygone era that Shelly pines for, and everyone else seems only too happy to escape.
Bello and Macy make for a charismatic couple, each able to invigorate the other with courage to confront their respective demons of shame and fear. The sex may not be quite as hot as advertised, but it's still more plausible than the hands-on-flesh dissolves that constitute most Hollywood hump scenes.