Bernie (William H. Macy) works for his old friend Shelly (Alec Baldwin) in the Golden Shangri La, a Las Vegas casino, as a "cooler". What this means is that Bernie's luck is so bad that it rubs off on other people, specifically the gamblers in the casino, so that Shelly won't lose too much money when one of them hits a winning streak. Bernie has made up his mind to leave this life behind and get a proper job away from the city, but by chance he gets talking to one of the cocktail waitresses, Natalie (Maria Bello), and a tentative friendship quickly develops into something stronger. Meanwhile, Shelly is having trouble with the owners of the Shangri La, who want to update its old fashioned operations...
This unusual drama, tinged with fantasy, was scripted by Frank Hannah and the director Wayne Kramer, and takes advantage of its setting in one of the most cinematic of cities, Las Vegas. It also provides character actor Macy with a name above the title starring role for a change, even if the role is the typical loser he could by now play in his sleep. I've never heard of any poor soul who has so much bad luck it can detrimentally influence the people around him, and it's true the workings of this contrivance do show, but the film doesn't suffer from it, and enhances its background of dangerous gangsters looking after their interests, gambling tables and cheesy nightclub performers.
There are some nicely sketched, casual illustrations of Bernie's ill fortune in the opening minutes. He always asks for cream in his coffee but the cream always runs out just as its being poured, the prostitute who lives next door to him always has her bed too close to the wall, resulting in frequent night time thumping, and to top it all his cat has run away. On the other hand, Natalie is taking an interest in him, and when she discovers that he is planning to leave town, she wastes no time in taking him to bed (did we really need to see Macy naked?). As engagingly played by Bello, Natalie is a loser like Bernie, neither of them are getting any younger, and she is making her living as a waitress while regretting not having done more with her life, like not giving her son up for adoption when she was a teenager.
There's a generation gap here, not so much between the characters' ages, but between their points of view. Shelly doesn't see that his casino needs a refurbishment, regarding himself and his establishment as the last classy institution in a Vegas that has become tacky and populist in the worst sense. His business partners disagree, and plan to knock the place down to rebuild it as just the sort of place Shelly detests. The up and coming individuals just don't have the taste of the old timers, as illustrated by the ageing Tony Bennett-style nightclub singer (Paul Sorvino) replaced by "the new Harry Connick jr", complete with strippers. Then there's Bernie's lowlife son (Shawn Hatosy), who reappears with a pregnant girlfriend (Estella Warren) looking for easy money - the old guard are being forced out by new blood, and things are going downhill.
Bernie's relationship with Shelly is an interesting one, as they are the only real friends each other have. This despite Shelly nearly crippling Bernie's knee some time ago over a gambling dispute, and selfishly needing him around to make sure the money rolls in instead of rolling out. When Natalie and Bernie genuinely fall in love, the cooler's bad luck abruptly changes to good, and his effect on the punters is disastrous for the Shangri La, with big wins springing up all over. Now the couple are in trouble, and as Shelly does his best to separate them the film turns violent; Baldwin is excellent at showing how the old way of life can be just as unforgiving as the new - but his proud, cold heart can only take so much as he still knows the meaning of respect. The Cooler may be artificial in its set up, but it all fits together very well, with fine performances easing the story along. Music by Mark Isham.