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Luck be a lady: Bello in The Cooler.

The Joker Is Wild
By Ann Morrow

The Cooler
Directed by Wayne Kramer

Released in 2003 and going unnoticed amid the year’s major-studio epics and prestige indie flicks, The Cooler is an unpredictable doozy from an unknown filmmaker (Wayne Kramer) that has it all: great acting, sharp dialogue, flashy setting, and intriguing characters. And it’s wickedly funny, too.

Back in the day in Las Vegas, when the strip was still sleazy, the cleavage wasn’t silicone and crooners were called lounge singers, a “cooler” was a human albatross, a person so unlucky it’s catching. William H. Macy, the quintessential loser (Fargo, Magnolia) is, not surprisingly, cast to perfection as Bernie, the greatest cooler of them all. Bernie’s bad vibes follow him everywhere, from the blackjack table to his dingy hotel room, where the plants all die. Bernie is paid to put the freeze on winning streaks (with the actor’s inimitably resigned funk) just by wandering among the tables. What is surprising in this astutely sizzling little film, however, is how appealing and versatile Macy can be.

Bernie’s only friend is his boss, Shelly (Alec Baldwin), a kingpin who is both the brains and brawn of the “old-school” Shangri-La casino. Shelly has a ferocious temper, and he’s put in a really bad mood when the casino’s mobster investor shows up with a hotshot MBA (Ron Livingston) to modernize the joint. Shelly tells his overlord straight up that he doesn’t want the Shangri-La tricked out into some “Disneyland mookfest for the suburban stroller set,” but hey, $35 mill a year in profits ain’t what it used to be, and so he’s stuck with a partner. When Bernie gives him a week’s notice, it doesn’t exactly make Shelly’s day.

And then lady luck shows up. Unbelievably enough, the leggy cocktail waitress (Maria Bello) that Bernie has a crush on falls in love with him (“Being put on a pedestal sure puts the gutter in perspective,” she tells him). Presto chango, Bernie is a charmed man. His newfound happiness turns him into a force of good fortune that has the slot machines lining up cherries and the cards flipping to 21 every time he walks by. A sudden run on the house’s cash reserve, however, is not a good thing for Shelly. And as they say, love doesn’t last and luck always runs out.

But there’s something about Bernie that only Natalie notices: He’s a helluva guy. He may be a schmuck, but he’s no wimp; he doesn’t back down when Shelly tries to intimidate him. There’s something about Macy, too. He’s disarmingly convincing as a romantic lead. His love affair with Natalie, who has been bruised but not hardened by her knock-around life, is a sexy, gritty, realistic relationship, keenly observed by the unobtrusive direction. The film’s tension stems from Bernie’s servitude to Shelly, who rules his neon-lit fiefdom with a velvet-gloved iron fist, and who once shattered Bernie’s kneecap to cure him of compulsive gambling. Is Shelly just a conniving user, or is loyalty one of his “old-school” virtues?

Shelly is the first role to truly utilize Baldwin’s silky menace and corroded melancholy. The hidden reserves, vulnerable underbellies, and checkered pasts of the characters somehow mix as well with the slickly comic cinematography as gin and tonic. And despite the neo-noir atmosphere, The Cooler is retro in more than its art design: The film really believes in the transformative power of love. Just like a hot streak in old Vegas, The Cooler is grown-up entertainment with a big payoff.

The Downward Spiral

House of Sand and Fog
Directed by Vadim Perelman

In classic Hegelian theory, bad things don’t necessarily happen because a bad person sets out to destroy a good person. Rather, unfortunate series of events are usually touched off as a result of the competing interests of two well-intentioned individuals. Or, something close to that—it’s been about 20 years since I took philosophy. At any rate, Hegel’s theories are in full display in the gripping, yet hollow, House of Sand and Fog.

Housecleaner, abandoned wife and recovering alcoholic Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) wakes up one morning to find city officials posting eviction notices on her house, which was left to her by her adored father. Seems Kathy is accused of nonpayment of a business tax that, in one of those bureaucratic nightmares, she never actually owed. However, the wheels have been set in motion, and she has to fight the clock to right the situation: The auction is the next day.

Col. Behrani (Ben Kingsley), former assistant to the Shah of Iran, and a new citizen of the United States, works on a road crew and, in evenings, at a convenience store. Before and after each shift, he cleans up in a hotel men’s room and dons a suit and tie. His family is ensconced in a palatial apartment house, but he dreams of returning them to a real home, complete with a view of the sea, such as they had, back in the good days, on the Caspian. He sees the notice for Kathy’s house, and before we know it, he has purchased it for a mere $45,000.

The rest of the movie centers primarily on the conflict involving Kathy, broke and none too swift, getting her house back, and the colonel, stubbornly refusing to give up that which he believes he has rightfully bought. In both cases, it’s about so much more than the mere property. For Kathy, the house represents the only security she’s ever known. Her mother and brother are on the East Coast and don’t seem to provide her much of an emotional safety net. For the colonel, the house represents a first step toward regaining his family’s honor and stature.

In the meantime, others are drawn inextricably into this vortex. A sheriff’s deputy, Lester (Ron Eldard), takes pity on Kathy and agrees to help her. Eldard does a nice job of letting us see into his character’s heart and mind: Here is a nice guy who’s very bored, who craves action, and who ultimately gets more than he bargains for. The colonel’s wife, Nadi, is a beautifully drawn character, a gracious presence struggling to find peace in this new land and haunted by fears of having to return to her homeland. His son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout) is a gentle spirit who tells the colonel that he feels sorry for Kathy, and that they should have given her back the house.

Based on the book by Andre Dubus III, this is a potentially compelling human drama of the highest sort. Unfortunately, director Vadim Perelman feels the compulsion to focus not so much on the humanity of each character, but on the outward and inward forces pulling them down. Two hours plus is a long time to watch people slip further and further into a complete abyss, especially when there is no hope for redemption for anybody. We know that things are going to end badly, whether it’s when Kathy picks up her first cigarette in a long time, or when Lester tells her to go ahead an have that drink, she’s a big girl. Does this have to be so unremittingly despondent? Somehow, I don’t remember the book this way, but Perelman clearly has a different vision of the characters, or perhaps America, so much so that all that’s left at the end is a sense of utter desolation and loss, with the characters left standing completely hollowed out, like emotional scarecrows.

—Laura Leon

Dog Treats

Teacher’s Pet
Directed by Timothy Björklund

Having never seen the television series on which it is based, I didn’t know what to expect with Teacher’s Pet, but it was cold, and the kids had the day off from school, so it seemed like the right thing to do.

And, well, we were blown away.

Directed by Timothy Björklund, and written with great wit by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, the movie is about a dog (Nathan Lane) who desperately wants to be a boy. In fact, he dons shorts, shirt and glasses and attends the same school as his master, Leonard Helperman (Shaun Fleming)—at these times he goes by the name of Scott Leadready II and, indeed, is the star pupil in Mrs. Helperman’s class. That this cheerful lady (Debra Jo Rupp) is oblivious to the fact that her fave student is, in actuality, the family pet, is just one of many jokes that, almost unbelievably, work. Art director Gary Baseman’s characters all have a loopy, strangely hued appearance, topped by heads that appear balloonic or, even like giant yams. To suggest that Spot/Scott looks any more canine than, say, the boys and girls of the class, is to have to really analyze the issue.

The movie is set in motion when Spot stows away on the Helperman “Winnewago,” which is en route to Florida where Mom will compete in a national teacher’s competition. Spot wants to go not just to be with Leonard, but because he’s just heard about one Dr. I. Ivan Krank (Kelsey Grammer) who claims to have perfected the science of transforming animals into humans. Of course, when Leonard and Spot get to Dr. Krank’s laboratory, they discover some of his first experiments, namely Dennis (Paul Reubens), a pop-eyed, denim-wearing croc, and Adele (Megan Mullaley), a Pinocchio-nosed mosquito with a coif worthy of Dana Delaney in China Beach. Says Spot about Dr. Krank: “He looked shorter on TV. Maybe it’s the ax.”

Meanwhile, Spot’s fellow domesticated critters, a macho parakeet named Pretty Boy (Jerry Stiller) and a wimpy cat named Mr. Jolly (David Ogden Stiers) take off in pursuit of Spot when they find out that Dr. Krank is a confirmed quack. The combined adventures of Leonard, Spot, the other animals, and even Mrs. Helperman is the stuff of madcap genius, somehow reminiscent of the best screwball comedies and yet wholly new and disarming.

Did I mention the songs? Teacher’s Pet mocks the “I feel a song coming on!” mentality of so many musicals even as it delivers a handful of brilliant, achingly funny melodies of its own. Dr. Krank’s theme alone is worth the price of admission. This is a movie that has to be seen multiple times, if only because it is packed with hysterical one-liners and visual punchlines, all delivered at a breakneck speed. In a tongue-in-cheek number in which Leonard bids adieu to Spot whilst frolicking with woodland animals, a la Bambi, keep an eye on the upper-left-hand corner of the screen, and you’ll notice to your horror and delight that the smiling python is picking off tree babies like it’s a Chinese buffet. Scenes in which the pet sitter watches numerous soaps, in English and Spanish, will have fans of the genre laughing at both the dead-on accuracy of the pillow talk as well as guffawing at recognition of the voices—Anthony Geary and Genie Ann Francis, of Luke-and-Laura fame.

Will Pretty Boy and Mr. Jolly get to Spot in time? Can Leonard convince Spot to be happy fetching sticks at the beach? Will Mrs. Helperman realize that that eligible guy she’s got her eye on is, in reality, her son’s best friend? And will she win the competition? All these and much, much more can be answered by watching this highly enjoyable creation.

—Laura Leon

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