As the year-end big guns open fire with hype to catch Oscar's attention, an indie gem like The Cooler has to hustle just to stay in the game. So keep an eye out. It's a winner.
William H. Macy gives one of his best performances as Bernie Lootz, a Vegas gambler with a knack for losing. His casino-manager pal Shelly (Alec Baldwin) hires him as a cooler, a "piece of walking Kryptonite" who can jinx a high roller just by sitting next to him.
Then Bernie's luck changes. He meets Natalie (Maria Bello), a cocktail waitress who beds him with grab-ass vigor. Bello breaks through as an actress of dazzle and depth. And Macy makes Bernie's sexual awakening a joy to behold. In an unrated version of the film shown at Sundance, the actors showed — yikes! — pubic hair. To earn an R rating, all things pubic had to go. No matter. Hollywood hypocrisy can't kill the killer rapport between Macy and Bello, who turn The Cooler into an indelibly funny and heartfelt love story.
Wayne Kramer, who co-wrote the scrappy script with Frank Hannah, makes a potent directing debut and strikes gold with the cast, including Paul Sorvino as a junkie lounge singer and Ron Livingston as the corporate voice of the new Las Vegas, a theme-park nightmare.
Top of the line is Baldwin, whose revelatory portrayal of an old Vegas hard-liner in thrall to the town's faded allure is the stuff Oscars are made of. From James Whitaker's seductive camerawork to Mark Isham's lush score, The Cooler places all the smart bets and hits the jackpot.