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‘The Cooler’ doesn’t need luck, it has Macy

The actor stars as a loser who finds Lady Luck  in Las Vegas. By Christy Lemire

William H. Macy has made a career of playing characters who are stressed-out (“Fargo”), put-upon (“Boogie Nights”) or washed-up (“Magnolia”).

But no matter what the role, there’s always a sadness in his enormous blue eyes that makes him stand out, a sweetness that makes you feel for him.

Macy uses that unlikely likability to full effect in “The Cooler,” a film that seems tailor-made for his look, his voice and his demeanor.

Director and co-writer Wayne Kramer has crafted a richly textured film with a clever premise: Macy plays the aptly named Bernie Lootz, a former gambler who strolls through the cheesy Shangri-La Casino in Las Vegas and “cools” players when they get too hot.

Bernie is so hopelessly unlucky, if he sits down at a blackjack table, the people sitting with him immediately bust. Sometimes all he has to do is walk past a craps table and everyone loses.

He works at the Shangri-La — not that he has much else going on — to pay off his debt to the casino’s old-school owner, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin). This is a guy who spits with disdain at the “Disneyland mookfest” he thinks Vegas has become, and who’s vehemently resistant to the family-friendly upgrades suggested by Larry Sokolov (a perfectly smarmy Ron Livingston), an ambitious young consultant.

(How’s this for irony? In “Office Space,” Livingston was on the receiving end of a consultant’s micromanagement. Now he gets to dish it out.)

Among Larry’s ideas: He wants to replace the casino’s sad-sack heroin addict of a lounge singer (Paul Sorvino) with a schmaltzy kid named Johnny Capella (Joey Fatone from ’N Sync — and yes, he gets to sing!).

But Bernie’s unlucky streak extends outside the casino’s clock-free, windowless walls to his dreary life in the desert sun. His cat ran away. His plants are dead. And a social life? He’s busted there, too.

Lucky in love That is until he meets Natalie (Maria Bello), a cocktail waitress who befriends him just as he’s a few days away from clearing his debt and leaving town.

The two fumble toward each other awkwardly, even a little too quickly. The first word out of his mouth after they have sex for the first time is, “Sorry.”

“It’s OK, Bernie. I’ve had worse,” Natalie assures him, sort of.

But it doesn’t take long for them to form a relationship that’s sweet and seemingly genuine, something they both needed more than they realized.

Bello, with her blond hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, still looks effortlessly lovely. In Natalie, she creates a character who looks like she’s lived a hard life, but with a trace of melancholy that gives her vulnerability.

And the sex scenes — whoa! They’re more graphic than the much-hyped interludes in “In the Cut,” which featured a fully nude Meg Ryan, and they almost landed the film with an NC-17 rating. They’re also more believable, more relevant, and seem to spring more organically.

Everything about the film feels natural; even the way it’s shot, with lots of green and brown, gives it the look and mood of a film from the late ’60s or early ’70s.

Shangri-La far is from the shimmery, glittering Vegas depicted in recent movies like “Ocean’s 11.” No impeccably dressed criminals here, no candlelight dinners. Just harsh fluorescent lighting and guys who take a baseball bat to your kneecaps when you cross them.

Just as the character of Bernie Lootz is perfect for Macy, the low-down thuggery of Shelly Kaplow is an ideal fit for Baldwin. Here, in a role reminiscent of one of his best, in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” he’s charismatic and commanding.