The Cooler is Bernie Lootz, a loser who has made his career out of his contagious bad luck. The Cooler plies his trade, working on the floor of Las Vegas\' aging Shangri-La casino, an old-school \"gambler\'s casino,\" a dinosaur in the shadow of the new Strip and its theme-park attractions. In this purgatory of bright lights and chirping slots, Bernie drifts from table to table, his bad karma cooling one gambler\'s lucky streak after another. Like an inmate serving time, Bernie has been here for years, paying off a nasty gambling debt he owes to the Shangri-La\'s slippery Director of Operations, Shelly Kaplow. Bernie is just days away from fulfilling his debt when he meets Natalie, a new cocktail waitress at the Shangri-La. Natalie sweeps Bernie off his feet, and after a night of much-needed raucous sex, Bernie is in love. When Natalie starts to love him back, Bernie\'s luck starts to change. Feeling good for the first time in years, Bernie can\'t wait to leave Las Vegas and move on with his life with the woman of his dreams. But will Shelly let his most valued asset leave so easily?
William H. Macy plays Jerry Lootz, a man so thoroughly unlucky that he is the cause of bad luck in others. In hock to a slick, thuggish casino manager (Alec Baldwin), Jerry works as a cooler, foiling the winning streaks of customers whose good fortune threatens the house s take. His own luck begins to change when a cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello) takes him to bed, and then falls in love with him in spite of herself. The setting- -Las Vegas with its sleazy, lowlife glamour- -feels a bit tired, and the story is hokey, but Wayne Kramer, making his feature debut as a director, reins in his gimmicky instincts enough to allow the skill of the actors to shine through the drab indie-noir conventions. Mr. Baldwin plays his villainous role with subdued relish, and Mr. Macy and Ms. Bello settle comfortably into their characters, giving them an appealing, lived-in glow. — A. O. Scott
2003-11-26 | A. O. Scott | Read the New York Times Review of The Cooler