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Weekend

By Dena Hill

Contributing Writer

Lady Luck picks a slick love story with an edge

Lovers Natalie (Maria Bello) and Bernie (William H. Macy) are separated by Shelly (Alec Baldwin), whose uses Bernie’s bad luck against his casino clientele in The Cooler.
“Do you know what I do at the Shangri-La?” Bernie Lootz, a mythical loser, asks the casino cocktail waitress who soon becomes his unlikely girlfriend.

“You’re a cooler. You turn winners into losers,” she says. Indeed he does.

Set in an old casino in Las Vegas, The Cooler stars William H. Macy as the ironically named “Lootz” and Alec Baldwin as the Shangri-La’s seething director of operations, Shelly Kaplow.

As the “cooler,” Bernie moves from table to table — wherever anyone is winning — and his mere presence turns anyone’s good luck into instant misery. His mournful control over fortune is so reliable that Shelly employs him to cool Lady Fortune’s ardor for the casino’s patrons, and in doing so to pay off a long-time gambling debt to Shelly.

Bernie walks with a limp as a result of a broken knee from Shelly’s payment plan. When we first meet him, he’s down to his last week of work after many years at the casino. He is living in a rundown motel and counting the days until he’s free to move on.

But Shelly has his own ideas about Bernie’s future. He doesn’t want to lose Bernie’s moneymaking ability at the casino. The Shangri-La — a remnant of the ‘60s heyday of Las Vegas — is Shelly’s life, and he’s being pressured by an up-and-coming casino manager (Ron Livingston) to update the aging venue. Bernie is (it’s hard to avoid the clichés) his ace in the hole.

But then Bernie falls in love with the cocktail waitress, Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello), and, astonishingly, she returns his affections. Lady Luck actually likes him? When his luck begins to change, it’s great for him, but not such a sweet deal for Shelly, who’s playing for his own high stakes.

But the romance between Lootz and Natalie absorbs us. Their first love scene is painful to watch and moving at the same time — and just so we don’t miss the point, they fumble at each other to the sound of “Luck be a Lady Tonight.”

Mr. Macy, a powerhouse at sad sack roles, clearly understands the nuances of whimsy needed to switch Bernie’s personality from grim to glowing, and he delivers it all without showing the wheels in movement. To his credit, director and co-screenwriter Wayne Kramer doesn’t lose a moment of the humanity played out on Mr. Macy’s face as Bernie quickly falls in love with the girl he thought he could never have.

As the star-crossed lovers (sorry), Mr. Macy and Ms. Bello go from sexy, to gut-bustingly funny, to heart-breaking and then some. Ms. Bello neither lapses into overkill as the world-weary Natalie, nor fails to generate vulnerability when Natalie truly lets down her guard. As Lady Fortune, she’s a powerful force.

But no matter how good Mr. Macy and Ms. Bello are, Alec Baldwin simply steals every scene he is in. In the best performance of his life, Mr. Baldwin builds a character so complex that every scene reveals a little more to gawk at. Mr. Baldwin’s characterization of Shelly is so good that we can almost see him as a little boy at a Las Vegas pool, gladly running to fetch cigarettes and martinis for the Rat Pack, hoping to grow up to look just like them.

He smokes, wears the garnet ring and the shiny ties, and tells raunchy stories for the guys. But underneath it all, he’s downright scary.

Still, no matter how rotten and violent Shelly shows he is, Mr. Baldwin makes his internal desperation empathetic. When he smashes the hated scale model of the proposed “Disneyfied” casino (complete with entertainment center and roller coaster) and then smashes the smarmy young corporate executive (Livingston) who brought it, we can all feel, if only for a moment, a twinge of his longing for the old days, when guys had class — and dressed better.

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