PARK CITY, Utah--"I've worked hard to stay in shape," William H. Macy was saying, "but who would have guessed my first love scene would come when I was 50?"
He grinned that William H. Macy grin, rueful, surprised, like a kid who got away with something. He was answering questions after the Sundance screening of "The Cooler," a film in which he plays Bernie Lootz, a man with such bad luck that casino boss Alec Baldwin hires him to simply stand next to gamblers on a winning streak. That's all it takes.
The movie combines elements of "Casino" with the flip side of "Leaving Las Vegas." We get a lot of backstage casino lore, but this time when the loser meets the hooker, it's true love. Maria Bello co-stars as Natalie, a casino waitress who starts dating him for her own reasons, but stays because, to her amazement, she's head over heels. That's when Bernie's luck changes.
The movie, directed by Wayne Kramer, combines fantasy elements involving luck with a hard-edged portrait of a vicious casino boss--Baldwin, in a performance that makes the guy oily, hateful and somehow plucky; he's holding out for old-style Vegas in the face of modern times. The new-money guys don't even believe in coolers.
"The Cooler" was the first film I saw Monday during a day of catchup, trying to take in movies with a big buzz. Because most Sundance movies arrive unseen by anyone except the selection committee, you get accurate tips just by listening to people. I walked into the Eccles Center, for example, just as "Pieces of April" was getting out, and 20 people told me they loved it. So there I was at the second screening, in the auditorium of the Park City Library.
This one is a honey. One distributor told me with lust in her voice, "I could make this into the next 'Greek Wedding.' " Well, maybe.
The film takes place on Thanksgiving as April (Katie Holmes) and her boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) prepare Thanksgiving dinner for her family, who are driving into the city. As she desperately tries to borrow a stove for her turkey, we follow the progress of the family: father Oliver Platt, mother Patricia Clarkson, younger brother and grandma with Alzheimer's.
The key to the film is that everyone in it is basically nice and a little crazy, especially the Clarkson character, who is fighting breast cancer and uses that as a way to get laughs. At one point, she urgently tells her husband to pull over the car because she has to make a big announcement. "We all have to give a lot of thought," she starts, and they think she'll talk about her possible death, but she finishes, "to how we are going to hide the food we don't eat."
Nobody has any confidence in April's cooking, and the scene where she and Bobby stuff the turkey is some kind of a classic. Derek Luke plays Bobby as a nice guy, saner than April, and this film, coming after his work as "Antwone Fisher," shows his range: He'll be a star.
"I'm still living the dream," he told me in the library corridor. "Don't wake up," I advised him.
Neil LaBute came to fame with the Sundance premiere of his great first film, "In the Company of Men"(1997), and is back this year with "The Shape of Things." The earlier film was about a man playing a cruel joke on a woman; this one, which is otherwise totally different, is about a woman playing a cruel joke on a man.
Based on a play LaBute wrote and directed in London, the movie follows two couples: Adam and Evelyn (Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz) and Phil and Jenny (Fred Weller and Gretchen Mol). They attend college together, where Adam and Phil were former but polar-opposite roommates. Adam, overweight and unkempt, starts dating the daring Evelyn; their Meet Cute takes place in a museum where Adam is a guard and Evelyn wants to spray-paint a penis on the fig leaf of a statue.
Soon they're in love, and she is transforming him. She makes him lose weight, get a nose job and throw away the cord jacket he's been wearing since he was a freshman. But she clashes with Phil, a loose screw who hates her on sight (he wants to marry Jenny underwater, in scuba gear). All of this seems like the setup for a campus comedy, but not in the world of Neil LaBute, where the sexes have arrived at Armageddon, and the last act involves pain and humiliation. Once again LaBute proves himself one of the most literate, penetrating and darkly humorous of directors.