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Movie Review: "The Cooler"

William H. Macy, who is one of the best actors of his generation, did not even take credit on the opening titles for this film, even though he is the star. (He did take credit in the cast list.)

But the real star of this film is Maria Bello, who is best known for a recurring role in the TV series "E.R.", who plays Natalie, a down-on-her-luck waitress in a down-on-its-luck casino, trying, like all the others, to make a break in Vegas.

In fact, just about everyone in this film is down on his or her luck, which is kind of the point. Macy is the silly-named Bernie Lootz, who is hired by Shelly (Alec Baldwin, and he plays evil really well), the owner of what's termed the "last of the old-style casinos" in Vegas, which some Harvard MBA's have been hired to "revamp", bring "into the future" -- as a "cooler", someone whose luck is so bad that he can dampen a winning streak just by sitting at the same table as someone who's on a lucky streak.

There's a bit of magic in all of this, because you have to believe in luck and lucky streaks to believe what's about to happen to Bernie. There are setups and double-crosses here; suffice to say that Natalie truly does fall in love with Bernie, though you'll question this throughout the film. Her character reminds me a bit of Elisabeth Shue's Sera in "Leaving Las Vegas", though she's not quite as hard-edged. None of the characters here are, not even Shelly, though you'll see him doing some extremely nasty things to many of the people he supposedly cares for (and warning: there's a scene in which some violence is done to a woman who's obviously pregnant, though even that turns out not to be as it seems).

The movie has a '50s sensibility about it, both in the characters (though Baldwin's Shelly seems too young to have been an old-fashioned, hard-bitten Mob ruler of a casino), the music, the lighting, the settings, but it's clearly a modern fable, almost a parable, of how luck can rule people's lives, and the choices you make don't always turn out the way you think they will.

AYRating: ***