Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is cursed. Everything he has ever touched in his life has turned bad including a past gambling habit that has made Bernie reluctantly indebted to Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) an old-school wise guy who paid off Bernie's debts--but not before kneecapping him with a baseball bat. Shelly runs the Shangri-La Hotel and Casino a throwback to '50s Vegas when it was an adult playground full of gamblers and glitzy shows--not the family-oriented fantasyland it is now. Realizing Bernie's contagiously bad luck could be profitable for him Shelly brings Bernie on as the casino's "cooler"--so called because Bernie's able to stop a gambler's winning streak just by standing nearby. But after many years of being indentured to Shelly Bernie's debt is nearly paid and he's looking forward to moving on with his life. Shelly on the other hand doesn't want to lose one of his most valuable assets--especially since upper management wants to upgrade the Shangri-La with three floors of gambling and a roller coaster. Complicating matters even more the shy Bernie becomes smitten with Natalie (Maria Bello) a hard-bitten cocktail waitress at the Shangri-La who after a few awkward dates warms up to Bernie. Suddenly with a genuine Lady Luck by his side Bernie's cooling techniques run cold and his once icy touch turns hot. Has Bernie's luck really changed? Is he really going to break away from his hellish existence and take the girl with him? Not if Shelly has anything to say about it.
In The Cooler Macy gives his gutsiest most lovable most heartbreaking loser performance to date. Bernie is one sorry lump of flesh but because Macy's portrayal is so nuanced you never really feel sorry for Bernie. From the beginning Bernie's good at what he does and commands respect on the casino floor. When he falls in love with Natalie Macy suddenly become the thinking woman's sex symbol radiating his peculiar sensibilities and goofy sex appeal especially in the rather explicit but intensely comical and intimate love scenes. For her part Bello (Auto Focus) does a wonderful job playing the wounded Natalie another working girl with a chip on her shoulder whose whole demeanor is changed by love. Yet the real tour de force performance is Baldwin's. He's finally let go of the idea that he has to play the leading man and has embraced his supporting role with fervor. His Shelly is a desperate desperate man the worst kind of control freak but Baldwin plays the nostalgic casino manager with empathy and dare we say heart even as he breaks people's knee caps and punches pregnant women in the stomach. Supporting player Paul Sorvino also gives a memorable performance as the Shangri-La's aging drug-addicted lounge singer.
Co-writer and first-time director Wayne Kramer understands a thing or two about bad karma. "I'm the kind of guy whose luggage always gets lost by the airline " he has admitted--and he evidently pours all his experience being unlucky into The Cooler. He and co-writer Frank Hannah came up with the concept of a Vegas casino floor "cooler" without any real proof the job exists but whether it's fact or fiction the film comes alive when Bernie's anti-Midas touch is at work cooling the dice so they'll crap out jinxing the slot machines so they'll bust or tapping the dealer so he'll get a blackjack. The pace of the film only hiccups in a few places usually during moments between Bernie and Natalie but overall it brilliantly displays Las Vegas' fading glamour--those "daddio" days when cocktails were cocktails and gamblers gambled. The Cooler could have just as easily been Shelly's story as he tries to hold onto the old Vegas ways and maintain his casino's dignity before it turns into another splashy attraction.