Miranda Sawyer - Bit of a gamble

Film - An implausible romance is saved by a winning cast. By Miranda Sawyer

The Cooler (15)

This is a casino movie, which means it has sex, violence, neon, money, sinning and winning, boozing and losing. Great. It's also got the never-less-than-wonderful William H Macy, plus Alec Baldwin and Dr Anna Del Amico out of ER. You'd stake your house, wouldn't you? Sadly, like many seemingly sure- fire bets, The Cooler doesn't deliver as it should. This is an uneven, daftly plotted movie rescued by excellent acting, laugh-out-loud one-liners and a couple of sweet sex scenes.

Macy is Bernie Lootz, the unluckiest man in Vegas, employed by the Shangri-La casino to "cool" winners' streaks merely by standing close to them. Bernie's such a loser, he's contagious. But losers are always cinematic winners, and the film lights up whenever Macy's hangdog face is smeared down the screen, like putty under bright light. When Natalie, a beautiful waitress, asks him out for a drink, he glances behind to see if she's talking to someone else. And when she sleeps with him, his face is a picture of gratitude, even if his body doesn't behave. ("Never mind, Bernie," she says. "I've had worse.")

Alec Baldwin, co-starring as Shelly, the Shangri-La's owner who refuses to move with the times, gives a bravura performance that adds subtlety to a cliched bad guy we have seen in every Mafia film since the Seventies. Lonely, bullying, stuck in his ways, Baldwin's Shelly is like a lion roused from a doze: sleepy yet thoroughly dangerous. Though you have a sneaking suspicion that this isn't half of what this underrated actor can do when pushed, it is to Baldwin's credit that he doesn't yawn once. Instead, he cruises classily through his character's inconsistencies, relishing Shelly's violence, delighting in his scariness, and earns a deserved Oscar nomination.

Maria "Dr Del Amico" Bello is Natalie, the love interest who flips the story on its head. When Bernie and Natalie fall in love, Bernie's luck changes - and with it, everything else in his life. Unsurprisingly (this is a casino film), Natalie is a tart with a heart; surprisingly, Bello transforms her into much more, making every superfluous scene seem important, and burning every vital one into your mind. She and Macy share lovely moments in bed that, while they don't exactly sizzle, do remind you that sex can be romantic, even when it's not all that great.

In fact, for all its violence, bravado and cool, The Cooler is a very romantic film - meaning it's unrealistic and sentimental. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and when the film is good, it is great, its snappy dialogue, heavyweight acting and swooping cityscapes giving a tantalising whiff of Sweet Smell of Success. But the plot sets up impossible dilemmas which are just that - impossible. No one would behave like these characters. We can believe that Bernie is unlucky enough to affect everything around him; we can handle it when he becomes the opposite, showering fortune on to every passer-by; but it is too much to take that he would sit around with the love of his life waiting to be beaten up, or killed. No one is that much of a loser. Then there's Shelly, laughably amoral throughout the film, having an attack of the benevolent vapours right at the end; and Natalie, insisting that she loves Bernie, without crediting him with the heart to understand a minor mistake on her part. Not to mention a truly bizarre deus ex machina ending, so weird that it's hard to grasp what has happened, especially as we don't see or hear it for ourselves.

Still, this is director Wayne Kramer's first film and he co-wrote it, so I suppose we just have to hope that Hollywood will give him a better writer to direct next time. He has certainly got talent, not only for pulling out such accomplished performances (even from Estella "stick to modelling" Warren), but also for producing a just-slick-enough movie from only three weeks' filming. With starry camera-work and an ice-cool soundtrack, he turns Vegas itself into a major character - no small achievement, as the film was shot in Reno. If I were his agent, I'd hide his screenwriting book and tell him to stick to shooting.

Despite all its faults, though, I would recommend The Cooler - for Baldwin and Bello, but especially for Macy. He is funny and touching, with his neat side-parting and gonky limp, a good guy destined never to beat the bad. You never stop rooting for him, even as the plot loops and knots and pulls itself so taut that, in the final scenes, it snaps and unravels right in front of your disbelieving eyes.