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Of the top-three loser-role virtuosos contending in Amerindie cinema’s abjection Olympics—William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman—it was Hoffmann who’d seemed to have clinched the gold, through his gas-huffing turn in Love Liza. Don’t count out his competitors, though. In The Cooler, Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a man whose vibe is so unhealthy it’s actually contagious. The protagonist of this competent but undistinctive flick works as a “cooler” at the Shangri-La, an old-fashioned Las Vegas casino. (The place is so retro they had to shoot the movie in less-glamorous Reno.) When a customer hits a hot streak, seemingly affable casino manager Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) sends Bernie to give the guy’s luck a chill. The next generation of gambling-biz gurus—who want to update the casino to match its Disneyfied rivals—think “cooling” is an antiquated superstition. Yet Bernie’s negative mojo always works—until, that is, the bum-kneed chump falls for Shangri-La cocktail waitress Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello). Bernie has almost paid off a longstanding debt to Shelly, and he’s amazed to be facing a future that includes both freedom and love. The cooler’s newfound happiness ices his ability to sap other people’s luck, yet Shelly won’t let him go. Then Bernie’s estranged son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy), and his wife, Charlene (Estella Warren), arrive, and it’s a good bet that Bernie’s luck will change again. In his debut feature, director and co-writer Wayne Kramer (no relation to the MC5 guitarist) comes on like Paul Thomas Anderson’s less-talented younger brother. His big revelation is that the people around Bernie are meaner and more self-serving than they first appear—which isn’t such a big surprise, in a casino or elsewhere. Like so many hard-talking but softheaded neo-noirs, The Cooler deals bad karma to secondary characters: The casino’s washed-up singer (Paul Sorvino) gets a lethal pink slip, leaving his successor (N*Sync’s Joey Fatone) to die onstage. For its central couple, however, Kramer contrives the sort of fate that Shelly has already denounced as “Jimmy Stewart bullshit.”—Mark Jenkins