Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is “The Cooler,” a man so unrelentingly down on his luck that it’s his job to drift amongst any gambler on a hot streak at the aging Shangri-La casino and let his negative aura suck the luck right out of them. It’s an old-school trade, but then everything about the Shangri-La is old school. Stuck in a time warp of sorts, the Shangri-La is a hardcore smokey booze and broads gambler’s casino, hidden away from the glitzy new tourist trap theme casinos on the Strip. That it remains such a throwback is a direct reflection of Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), the Shangri-La’s smoothly thuggish Director of Operations. Shelly, a firm believer in such old-school tactics as coolers, stubbornly resists the advice of the casino’s new business school-slick financial advisor Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston) to modernize or even rebuild his beloved Shangri-La. Which means that Shelly needs Bernie now more than ever. The trouble is Bernie’s only worked at the Shangri-La in order to pay off an old gambling debt to Shelly. He’s now just five days away from paying back that debt and the antsy cooler plans on leaving Vegas for good.
That’s when Bernie meets Natalie (Maria Bello), the Shangri-La’s attractive new cocktail waitress. As Shelly’s two down-on-their-luck employees forge a romance that’s as unlikely as it is unexpected, Bernie’s luck begins to change. As the romance blossoms and Bernie falls in love, he loses the ability to cool off the gamblers’ hot streaks. The Cooler has warmed up, much to Shelly’s intense displeasure, and the reluctant employee and his dangerously furious boss soon face a difficult dilemma. Will Shelly let the suddenly ineffective cooler leave town with the woman of his dreams…or will the glowering puppet master use any means necessary, including those potentially lethal to Natalie, to force Bernie’s luck back in the gutter and return the cooler to the tables?
It’s tempting to say that this is the performance of William H. Macy’s career, but then it seems like one could say that practically every time the guy steps in front of a camera. It’s certainly the edgiest, sexiest, and, er, most revealing role of Macy’s career and he absolutely nails it here. He gets a lot of help, both from Wayne Kramer’s stylish direction and standout performances by both Bello and a gleefully over the top Baldwin in a role he was born to play.
“The Cooler” does wonderful things with an unlikely, maybe even slightly fantastic love story between two star-crossed lovers. A slightly forced subplot involving Bernie’s scumbag son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) and his fellow con artist girlfriend Charlene (Estella Warren) slows the proceedings down a bit, but that’s a minor quibble.
As gaudy, lusty and even a little bit tacky as the Shangri-La itself, “The Cooler” has the intangible and distinctive feel of a movie from a different era. Which just adds to this fine film’s mystique, providing yet another reason why “The Cooler” hits the jackpot.