Directed by Wayne Kramer
Written by Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer
Starring William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin
Classification: 14A
Rating: **

It's a comedy, it's a romance, it's a gangster flick. The Cooler is all of that and much, much less. This is a movie without a compass, switching pace and direction as haphazardly as a caffeinated SUV driver on a cellphone. The script hails from the too-eager-to-please school, the kind that looks to create an effect, any effect, without bothering to earn it. Here a burst of laughter, there a hint of poignancy, now a shard of violence, they all get thrown at the screen in the fond hope that something will stick. Something seldom does.

That's a shame, because two principal assets -- gambling as the subject and William H. Macy as the star -- get thoroughly wasted in the process. Admittedly, films about gambling are themselves a bit of a crapshoot. Given the stakes, they should be a sure thing dramatically, but have a way of coming up short. The recent Owning Mahowny had its moments and Croupier succeeded brilliantly, as did Robert Altman's California Split, a lovely little variation on Dostoevsky's existential theme. Yet these winners are the exceptions, and relative disappointment is the rule -- even Martin Scorsese, in Casino, succumbed to the house odds.

Why is the genre so difficult? Probably because writers fall into the trap of creating characters as artificially inflated as the milieu, all-or-nothing types who dwell at the sentimental extremes. The Cooler abounds in these clichés, starting with the setting itself: a tacky Vegas casino, The Shangri-La, that's a throwback to the good old bad days, before the city put Picasso on its walls and Prada in its stores and entire families in its sanitized hotels. Naturally, this anachronistic joint is run by a mobster with a heart of lead (Alec Baldwin), a tough reactionary clinging to the proud traditions of yore -- to that halcyon age when lounges crawled with lizards and cheaters got their knees capped with the working end of a baseball bat.

Traditional too is his faith in the reverse magic of "the cooler," and he employs the best in the business. With his hangdog face shrouded in a pall of pessimism, Macy's Bernie Lootz is the flipside of Lady Luck. This guy is Mister Luckless, a chronic loser whose negative karma is so contagious that his very presence at the tables is enough to plunge a player's hot streak straight into the deep freeze. As you can imagine, such an unlucky charm is quite a boon to any casino owner.

So when Bernie announces his imminent retirement, the boss sets out to entice him to stay. How? Easy. The mobster with the heart of lead hires the whore with a heart of gold (Maria Bello) to show the poor schmuck a good time. This she does, so convincingly that damned if Mister Luckless doesn't start feeling lucky -- an attitude shift that puts a definite crimp in his job performance. Yep, the cooler ain't cooling any more. Quite the opposite. Now, his happy mug has all the slot machines lighting up and every pair of dice running to sevens and elevens, prompting that old-fashioned boss to reach into his trunk for an old-fashioned remedy -- batter up, boys.

Oh, it gets sillier -- stick around for the last scene and you'll see how much sillier. In the interim, first-time director Wayne Kramer allows his cast to do pretty much what they wish. Apparently, it's Maria Bello's wish to be Sharon Stone in her younger years, and she manages a fairly credible impersonation -- it wouldn't look out of place in a Vegas lounge act.

As for Macy, he's likely wishing for a better script and, failing that, can't seem to disguise a certain creeping embarrassment, especially during the sex scenes with Bello. Watching his awkwardness in these unclad moments, you get the sense that he's living out a recurring Macy nightmare -- maybe the one where they reshoot Boogie Nights and stick him in the Dirk Diggler role.

Like any movie, The Cooler asks you to wager the price of admission on its merits. Like any reviewer, I'm here to figure the odds on that wager paying off. My morning line: This is a sucker's bet.

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