THE COOLER directed by Wayne Kramer, written by Kramer and Frank Hannah, produced by Sean Furst and Michael A. Pierce, with William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin, Shawn Hatosy and Estella Warren. 101 minutes. A Lions Gate release. Opens Friday (January 16). For venues and times, see movie listings. Rating: NNNNN
A story's making the rounds about Johnny Depp shooting on the set of Pirates Of The Caribbean. He was given a speech by the writers that explained the film's villains and their motivations. He immediately complained, "Man, I can't believe you're giving me exposition." That's a star's complaint. The star never has to explain anything. Explaining things is the job of the supporting actor, the one not made for sportive tricks, who tells the hero stuff, moves the plot along and dies in the third reel.
Of course, in the fluid world of today's movies, categories are tricky.
When William H. Macy, one of the hardest-working actors in movies, television and theatre, got his one Academy Award nomination, for Fargo, it was in the supporting category. He has more screen time than any other actor in that movie, including Frances McDormand, who was nominated and won in the leading category.
Macy is a supporting actor in mainstream studio pictures like Air Force One, Ghosts Of Mississippi and Jurassic Park III and as Joan Allen's uncomprehending husband in Pleasantville. On television, he' an Emmy-winning writer and actor, with stints on ER and Sports Night and the telefilms Door To Door and A Slight Case Of Murder.
But in the world of independent films, he's a curious kind of star, working with directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and David Mamet to etch indelible portraits of cuckolds (Boogie Nights), men destroyed by early success (Magnolia), power-mad film directors (State And Main) and harried middle-class decency (Focus). And who can forget his one great scene in Wag The Dog as a CIA agent gobsmacked by Robert De Niro's spinmaster, and Macy's line "There are two things I know to be true. There is no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war."
In The Cooler, Macy has a rare starring role, as Bernie Lootz, a man cursed with luck so bad it's contagious. If he walks through a casino, blackjack players bust their hands, the dice come up sevens and the roulette wheel stops on double zero, so he gets hired as a professional jinx.
In Toronto for the film festival premiere of the film, Macy notes that he'd actually told his agent not to get him any more loser roles.
"I'm not sure why I got all those roles. I'm an average-looking Joe Blow. When I started out, I played all these callow kids who ended up bloody. Then some cops. Fargo was defining, of course, and that led to all these losers who were in way over their heads.
"I told my agent, 'Don't torture me with these scripts,' but The Cooler was special. It was operatic loserdom, and I get the girl."
Appropriately for a film set in an imaginary Las Vegas, The Cooler was shot in Reno in an old casino that was about to be torn down.
"That was very strange. They were able to rent the whole thing, so we lived in the hotel where we were shooting for five weeks. It probably saved the production money on trailers and drivers."
It was Macy's third film with Alec Baldwin, after Ghosts Of Mississippi and State And Main.
"He's my favourite actor. He has such great presence, and he's always right there when you act with him."
Baldwin plays the casino boss who holds Bernie to his job through a complex web of obligation and blackmail.
The film's other star is Maria Bello, who also usually plays supporting roles in studio pictures and lead parts in independent films. Their sex scenes - there are only a couple - proved a little too racy for the Motion Picture Association of America, which wanted to slap an NC-17 rating on The Cooler, or, as it's known in L.A., "the kiss of death."
"What surprises me," says Macy, "is that older women have responded to those scenes. They're bold, but they're awkward. They're real - neither Maria nor I has a perfect body.
"I just don't understand why it took so long for me to do a nude scene.
"I've always kept fit, but why did they wait till I was 53?"
THE COOLER (Wayne Kramer)
In The Cooler, William H. Macy plays a man so unlucky that he's employed by Alec Baldwin's casino manager just to walk through the place and pass his bad luck along to hot players. Then he falls in love with a cocktail waitress (Maria Bello) and his luck changes, rendering him useless to his boss, who's fighting his own battles against partners who want to redevelop the casino into a new-style mega-resort.
This is ludicrous. It's no more a realistic portrait of Las Vegas than the NBC show Las Vegas. Lawsuits have stopped casinos from "backrooming" suspected cheats; now they just call the cops. The idea of a cooler dates back to the old days when pit bosses were superstitious; it's not a factor in the new world of corporate casinos.
On the important levels, though, The Cooler works as a dark romantic comedy about unfortunate entanglements and fate. Bernie is trapped and defined by debt, obligation and guilt over his long-estranged son (Shawn Hatosy), who shows up with his apparently pregnant bride (Estella Warren). Every path out of his trap leads into a new one.
What makes The Cooler worth seeing is its emotional reality in a fantastical setting.