The phenomenally unlucky Bernie Lootz works for gangster Shelly Kaplow, 'cooling' in a Vegas casino, spreading his bad luck to potential winners. When Bernie hooks up with waitress Natalie, his luck changes - a problem for Shelly, who makes it a problem for Lootz.
This first feature from director/ co-writer Wayne Kramer would make a great double-bill partner for Spanish hit, Intacto. That dealt with good luck as a supernatural power, revealing how smiling fortune could also be a curse; this mirror image shows that a lifelong losing streak can be a career ù but a turn for the better can jump-start catastrophe.
Allegedly based on a Las Vegas legend, the "cooler" concept is wittily demonstrated by early scenes that parody De Niro's glide through Casino or 007's baccarat triumphs in Dr. No.
After many scenes with glamorous hipsters striding through shimmering casinos having a great time, William H. Macy's sand-suited sad sack Bernie creeps unnoticed through a gaming room, spreading misery and loss among the clientele while the staff smugly rake in the suckers' cash.
Macy hasn't had a role this good since Fargo, and demonstrates again his mastery of the droopy-eyed, apologetically desperate, borderline bitter shrug. The Cooler takes a typical Macy character in new directions, playing him off against equally offbeat supporting turns. Maria Bello's waitress-hooker, whose affair with Bernie keeps tripping over new revelations, is sexy and sad, especially in a couple of very funny bedroom scenes ("No, my ass!").
A revelation is Alec Baldwin as an old-style gangster, sentimental and brutal by turns, resisting the transformation of his dingy casino into a glitzy tourist trap, all the more monstrous in that he commits his worst crimes out of genuine friendship. Baldwin's career choices often threaten to blot out the memory of how powerful an actor he is; here he holds up his end, smarmily dominant but showing cracks which set up a big speech about who the real loser in the relationship might be.
Most Vegas movies, from Casino to Showgirls, revel in the neon glamour they purport to find disgusting, but The Cooler goes for rottenness all the way. The ghosts of the Rat Pack have long departed, leaving only disillusioned, late-night sleaze: the foley work must have consisted entirely of getting the right crackle of ice cubes melting in second-rate whisky.
The bittersweet comedy allows moments of violence which underline the threat that comes with trying to outrun doom - though one last freak accident will have audiences cheering.
You need to buy into the fable-like premise to click with the story, but it's a good, simple idea, well executed. And you even get an acting masterclass from the three leads thrown in.