The Cooler

Imagine a man so unlucky, a casino employs him to walk around the floor, casually touching gamblers who are winning too much and instantly changing their fortunes.

Now try imagine someone playing this character with more credibility or soul than William H. Macy. Macy is so adept at delivering gentle, powerful portrayals of melancholy types that his work here seems ingrained into the script (by first-timers Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer), like no one could have conceived the character without also conceiving Macy to play him.

The man is named Bernie Lootz, and his poor luck caused him to rack up considerable debts at a Las Vegas casino some years ago. In order to work off the money he owes, he has come under the employ of Shelly Kaplow (a humorously vulgar and swaggering Alec Baldwin), who has him perform the job duties previously described. He’s a “cooler,” assigned to cool the winning streaks of lucky gamblers.

Whether these coolers ever actually existed in Vegas, I don’t know. But the concept works perfectly with Shelly, an old-school, Mob-affiliated casino owner who objects to the theme-park-ification of Las Vegas. While modern businessmen, such as the suits brought in to liven things up at Shelly’s Shangri-La, would scoff at such a superstitious notion, Shelly buys into fully — and the fact is, Bernie is an excellent cooler.

When the film begins, Bernie has just six days left before the end of his indentured servitude. A born loser like him has no life (just an ex-wife and a grown son, played by Shawn Hatosy), so he needs to escape Vegas and attempt to start one. Shelly wants him to stay, of course, but lacks the persuasive power to keep him. The only thing that could reach a sad-sack like Bernie is … a woman.

Arriving on the scene is Natalie (Maria Bello), a lovely cocktail waitress who is inexplicably smitten with Bernie. He can’t believe his good fortune — this is a man who thought good fortune had given up on him entirely — but sure enough, Natalie loves him. Who ever said love was logical?

This is a most original, most unusual love story, the likes of which are rarely seen anymore. Bernie and Natalie’s relationship, directed with surprising frankness by co-writer Wayne Kramer, is blissful and unassuming. Macy’s characteristic understatement, punctuated by a wry sense of humor, blends nicely with Bello’s damaged-goods persona as Natalie. The film’s sex and violence are oddly graphic at times, but under it all is a beautifully romantic heart.

B+ (1 hr., 43 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some very strong sexuality, a lot of nudity, some graphic violence.)