Macy wins even while losing

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Think of William H. Macy and you'll probably think of a down-and-out loser. It's the kind of character that's become his specialty - the crooked car salesman in "Fargo," the former quiz kid in "Magnolia," the doomed detective in the "Psycho" remake, and more.

He's been trying to break out of this stereotype lately - see his manic radio announcer in "Seabiscuit" for an example - but when a terrific poor-schlub role comes along, he still can't help grabbing it.

Which brings us to "The Cooler," wherein he plays the title character, a guy whose bad luck is so bad it's contagious. He's employed at a Las Vegas casino, where the management discreetly sends him to tables where high-stakes gamblers are winning too much.

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The cooler played by Macy is called Bernie Lootz, and that punning name is a clue to the movie's oddball blend of humor, melodrama, and pathos. The film is also a love story, telling how Bernie's romance with a waitress (Maria Bello) changes his own luck from bad to good, at least for a while.

His boss (Alec Baldwin) also has problems, battling ruthless businessmen who want to rebuild his old-fashioned casino into a glitzy gambling mall. The only way he can hang on to his traditional approach is to keep it profitable, which means driving Bernie and his good-luck girlfriend apart so the cooler can start cooling again.

The idea of a woman who's ordinary on the outside, beautiful on the inside, and able to transform the hero's life in mysterious ways is found in countless fairy tales, and on many levels "The Cooler" is just that.

Note how often it pays tribute to the film fantasy "Lost Horizon," for instance, and how its climax packs great emotional power even though Bernie himself admits it doesn't make a bit of rational sense.

Look for realism, and you'll find "The Cooler" disappointing. Look for a far-fetched yarn that's as unpredictable as a throw of the dice, though, and you'll find it engaging fun.

As for Macy's career, he has no fewer than four movies heading for theaters next year. So playing another poor-schlub loser clearly hasn't slowed his cinematic winning streak.

Rated R; contains sex and violence.

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