The Cooler

dir. Wayne Kramer

Opens Fri Dec 19.
The Cooler is a small, unremarkable film that has been getting a decent amount of attention due to one simple thing: sex. Specifically, a sex scene between two of its stars, William H. Macy and Maria Bello. Why all the hullabaloo? Because in the film, director Wayne Kramer has managed to give audiences something all too rare in films these days, and that something is a sexy scene that not only causes the audience to flush, but makes sense to them as well. The coitus in The Cooler is refreshing, realistic, and fun to witness, and much like Monster's Ball, the tangling of bodies helps elevate the entire endeavor above its somewhat middling quality.

The always sharp Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a recovering gambling addict who may be the unluckiest sap in the free world. He is so unlucky, in fact, that his proximity to other people can even alter their luck, which is why a casino boss, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), has made Bernie his casino's "cooler," sending Bernie around the gaming tables night after night to bring winning streaks to an end and keep hot players down. Bernie is not an employee, however, for he owes Shelly a rather sizable debt--a debt only partially repaid by the breaking of Bernie's knee.

This is The Cooler's setup, but as with any film that revels in shady characters, the twist's the thing, and The Cooler's twist comes courtesy of a cocktail waitress named Natalie (Bello), who inexplicably falls in love with Bernie's damaged soul. Perpetually exhausted, beaten down by her job and surroundings, Natalie finds comfort in Bernie, and it is in their relationship that The Cooler fully succeeds; gentle and natural, their time together, whether in bed or not, is a wonderful coupling to watch, and worthy of an entire film in and of itself. Unfortunately for the film, and for us, director Kramer and his co-screenwriter, Frank Hannah, have other matters in mind.

What sort of matters? As it turns out, thoroughly unnecessary ones, including Bernie's long-lost and troubled son, Mikey (an annoying Shawn Hatosy), as well as casino owner Shelly's struggles to keep corporate interests from transforming his old-school establishment into a playland for kids and fogies. Bernie's son appears for a dash of emotional conflict, as he and his pregnant wife attempt to guilt Bernie into some cash (which is to say, yawn); Shelly's plotline is slightly more interesting--especially given Alec Baldwin's brutal and beautiful performance, which will hopefully mark some sort of comeback--but the scenario only works to distract us from the connection Macy and Bello create between the audience and the picture. Because of this, the film itself feels cluttered and unfocused, especially as it limps like its main character toward a ridiculous climax that not only doesn't work, but nearly undermines the entire picture--an absurd twist is not the card we are looking for, but it is, sadly, the card we are given.

The Cooler could have been a sad and sweet romance, but like Las Vegas itself, it has far too many distractions. This is too bad because, as stated before, the sex is great. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Calendar Girls

dir. Nigel Cole

Opens Fri Dec 19.
Any excitement lit by the opportunity to see some of Britain's most celebrated actresses doff their tops--in a film about the making of a calendar, no less--might understandably flicker when it's revealed that those actresses are all over the age of 50. Then again, Helen Mirren is among the bare breasted, and politically incorrect though it may be to come right out and say, Mirren's Prime Suspect series won as many fans with her ripe measurements (38-26-37, sources say) as with the star's cool intellect.

I'll be honest here: At the end of Calendar Girls I walked out of the theater knowing the film wasn't quite as good as the condition of Mirren's naked breasts made me want to believe it was--for all its lovely scenery and romantically sexual botanical metaphor, the movie's pace jerks abruptly between breezy and boring. Based on a true story, it centers around a fusty English village women's group whose few rogue members (Mirren, Julie Walters) decide to reinvent the group's prim yearly calendar so that the proceeds--until then nominal--could provide resources for the local hospital's cancer ward. The spark behind their idea was the death of Walters' husband, John (John Alderton), from leukemia. A sweetheart of an old man who grew flowers for a living, John insisted on writing his own eulogy, in which he likened women to sunflowers, noting, "The last stage of their growth is their most glorious."

Because the women are the embodiment of John's favorite flower, Calendar Girls easily wins over its audience with the ladies' sparkling awakenings. Though these awakenings--emotional and physical--are the film's main grist, the vibrancy radiated by the actresses each time a robe drops or a shutter snaps is enough to make anyone who is prematurely hung up on the ravages of time, despite having yet to reach the age of 40, feel surprisingly relaxed. If not a bit shallow, too. KATHLEEN WILSON

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