On the short list of actors who should be bigger stars than they are, Alec Baldwin is right at the top. Few people have ever commanded a screen the way he does, from the rolling-thunder voice to his sharp-edged eyes to the slight menace in his every gesture. He doesn’t even lose his magnetism when he chunks up, as he did for a while after Kim Basinger left him. Most of these shoulda-been stars owe their misfortune to role choices (hello, Vince Vaughn); Alec’s biggest mistake was demanding too much money for Patriot Games. He lost the Jack Ryan franchise to Harrison Ford—who’s neck-and-neck with Kevin Costner atop the opposite list of stars bigger than they now deserve to be—and his fortunes never recovered.
Baldwin’s greed put him on one of those career parabolas where he’s not a star, but not forgotten, either. The quintessential leading man has become a character actor of sorts, hamming it up in The Cat in the Hat. About once every two years he pops up in a supporting role that reminds everybody just how good he is, and he’s the best thing about The Cooler, a nifty Las Vegas fantasia that debuted at Sundance last year. There are plenty of reasons to recommend this impressively assured debut by co-writer/director Wayne Kramer, but Baldwin’s performance as an old-time casino boss holds everything together while reminding us how good he could have been.
But it’s the story of Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy), whose job is to spread bad luck. He’s a “cooler” working on the floor of the Shangri-La casino, one of those Fremont Street-style places that had been falling out of favor in Vegas during the family-destination trend in recent years. Bernie looks for people on winning streaks and stops them, either by brushing against them or just sitting by them. Bernie is so unlucky that he’s actually contagious.
There’s always an element of magic in movies about Vegas, so this is a welcome addition to the canon. Of course, Macy has no problem selling the lifelong-loser vibe that Bernie must project; with his hangdog eyes and shuffling gait, it’s just another variation of his masterful Fargo performance. Bernie wants to get out of Las Vegas after years of working for Shangri-La boss Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin), who once had him kneecapped over a bad debt, then paid to get him fixed up. But Shelly has his own problems with new investors who want to turn the casino into another family playland. Baldwin, pulsing with energy, hates their ideas.
Bernie meets a waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello). He helps her get a better job and then has exciting, explicit sex with her while we all watch. Bernie is having fun for the first time in his life, and he’s not even thrown off when his asshole son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) shows up with a pregnant wife (Estella Warren) and really complicates things.
Kramer’s central conceit—that good luck or bad luck is communicable through Bernie—is an ingenious conduit for all kinds of metaphorical ideas about fate, love and predestination, even if its gimmickry somewhat conflicts with the seriousness of everything else. He and co-writer Frank Hannah have several plot lines moving, with the straightforward Bernie-escapes-from-Vegas story interwoven with a weird love story, family drama and the somewhat supernatural aspects of the “cooler” angle. This concoction leads to several improbabilities, including an ending that must be seen to be believed, but in the hands of skilled actors, it’s surprisingly simple to follow and accept.
Macy eats up his meaty role, and Bello manages to keep her dignity despite all the nakedness. But Baldwin’s supporting performance is even more memorable than this very good film. He’s the picture of old-school cruelty with kindness, a relic of the recent past who won’t admit time is obliterating his way of life. For any fan of casino pictures, Baldwin does beautiful, heartbreaking work. For Baldwin fans, it’s just great to see him get lucky again.
THE COOLER, ***, William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello, Rated R