Game of chance

Probing Vegas' seedy underbelly

Dec 22, 2004 at 12:00 am

If Howdy Doody had been blessed with a Pinocchio-like emancipation from the world of TV puppetry and blown a few decades on hard living, he’d probably look something like William H. Macy does today. There’s something childish in Macy’s features, his outsized ears and boyish flop of hair, but the creases and sags under his eyes suggest an adult’s measure of sadness. Over the past decade, Macy has used his singular looks and prodigious acting talents to nearly corner the market on down-and-out louts, such as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo and Quiz Kid Donnie Smith in Magnolia. With The Cooler, Macy adds another loser to his highlight reel — Bernie Lootz, a man who spreads bad luck for a living at a downtown Las Vegas casino.

In Vegas lore, a cooler is someone who stanches outbursts of luck among gamblers, and Lootz is the Typhoid Mary of misfortune, able to turn craps tables with a glance. It’s hard for many actors to convey melancholy without coming off mopey (i.e. Sylvester Stallone in Copland), but Macy uses his gifts to ease us into Lootz. In the opening minutes of the movie, Lootz looks at peace with his role in life, almost cracking a smile when yet another suburbanite lets it ride one too many times. At other points, Lootz oozes desperation and fear.

When his own luck reverses, Macy pulls out the brightness of a kid on Christmas morning.

The Cooler is essentially a three-piece film, with Macy on lead. Alec Baldwin plays the old-school casino boss who’s fighting against the economic forces transforming Vegas into a Disneyworld with more expensive rides. Quick quiz: How long has it been since Baldwin had a dramatic role worth noting? The answer is six years (in The Edge, also known as “that bear movie with Anthony Hopkins”) and his first few scenes in The Cooler play more like “Saturday Night Live” skits. Its only when Baldwin’s character shows his ruthlessness that he starts to draw the audience in, and his scenes with Macy bring out his strongest work.

Maria Bello plays the cocktail waitress who brings drinks to Lootz at work and, somewhat oddly, brings love to his seedy motel room. There’s a refreshing lack of artifice to Bello that makes what could have been some jarring scenes with Macy flow smoothly, and her self-assurance makes Macy’s performance far stronger than it might have been with a more typical Hollywood performer.

The Cooler is the debut film for director Wayne Kramer, who steals liberally but smartly from the conventions of mainstream and independent film. There are a few flashy edits, but Kramer shoots the movie on the grainy film stock that used to be required for all indie directors. He balances the magical realism surrounding Lootz by grounding the story in the fading milieu of downtown, off-strip Vegas.

Outside its high concept, the cleverest part of the movie is its supposed schism between the Steve Wynn Vegas and the one where security consists of fat men in gold chains doling out beat-downs to dice sharks.

Despite all the quality work, Kramer ends up delivering a kneecapping to his own movie, serving up too much easy symbolism in the final act. It’s the cardinal rule of all winning gamblers: Quit while you’re ahead.

E-mail Justin Hyde at [email protected].