The scene of Bernie's trials is a seedy, edge-of-town Las Vegas casino called, none too accurately, the Golden Shangri-La. The longtime lounge singer (another fine character man, Paul Sorvino) is a sweating junkie, the regular customers are the sort of sour misfits you don't see up at the Bellagio, and the pit bosses look like they've been cured in cigar smoke. The dark prince of this fiefdom is one Shelly Kaplow (played to the bloody hilt by Alec Baldwin), a ruthless bastard whose only endearing quality is that he's also a kind of sentimental dinosaur. In the age of "family entertainment," he still pines for Vegas' hard-talking salad days, when bent-nosed mobsters ran things and Sinatra dominated the soundtrack. "Not this Epcot bullshit," he snorts.
Predictably, our hero has fallen prey to Shelly's old-school values. After running up nightmare losses at the Shangri-La's tables, poor Bernie has been smartly whacked in the knee with a baseball bat and promptly put to forced labor in the casino as what superstitious old-timers used to call a "cooler" -- a gambler so unlucky that his failure is contagious. Wherever a craps shooter is making 10 straight passes or a 21 player keeps scoring blackjacks, management sends the cooler in to stop the streak with his very presence. Here comes Bernie Lootz in his creepy tan suit, a killer of dreams. "I do it by being myself," he laments. He's so poisonous he even wilts houseplants, and it will be months before he's got Shelly paid off. We feel for him in every pore.
The movie's pivotal conceit, concocted by South African-born director Wayne Kramer (Crossing Over) and his co-writer, a Scot named Frank Hannah, is that their embattled loser can be transformed by love. In fact, love begets good luck. Now this is the kind of pie-in-the-sky proposition that's disputed by Chicago Cubs fans and probably Elizabeth Taylor, but Kramer and Hannah pursue it with the determination of starved dogs. The minute Bernie hooks up with a weary Shangri-La cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello, whose chiseled blondness suggests Sharon Stone), his life begins to improve and Dame Fortune starts to smile. Following one of the most graphic sex scenes in any recent movie, the loser and the failed showgirl with a pair of dice tattooed on her butt mount an inspired revolt against Shelly's tyranny and begin to climb out of the abyss, healing each other's wounds along the way. No easy task. Shelly's under fire from the Shangri-La's soulless new owners to modernize, which puts him in an even more violent state of mind, and to make things worse, Bernie's bitter, scamming son (Shawn Hatosy) has materialized with a pregnant wife in tow, demanding to know where Dad has been all this time. More trouble is on tap.
In its lowdown way, The Cooler is a triumph of atmosphere: You can practically smell the desperation wafting off its degenerate gamblers. The sad-eyed Bello is just right as a woman on the edge of disaster. The hooker-infested dump where Bernie lives, the Bettor Life Motel, is the picture of rock-bottom. And when Baldwin isn't eating the scenery, the cold fury he brings to Shelly gives him just the right satanic bent. Beautifully shot by cinematographer James Whitaker and perfectly scored by jazzman Mark Isham, the film might work just fine were it not for that huge lump of sunny, school-play redemption it asks us to swallow. Even in Las Vegas, possibly the most irrational place on Earth, drama demands a bit of dramatic logic. Romantic fairy tales just don't play well on the Strip, despite its fake Eiffel Towers, bogus Italian palazzos, and strike-it-rich fantasies.
That said, let's give props to the talented Mr. Macy, who tries hard to convince us that poor Bernie Lootz ("Kryptonite on a stick," Shelly Kaplow calls him) can at last find fulfillment and get out of town with his head still attached to his neck. Isn't it pretty to think so?