Watching the Las Vegas yarn The Cooler is like the tentative euphoria of watching a roulette ball, until it bounces from your winning slot to the one that spirits away your cash and your dreams. A victory close enough to taste is all the more painful: director Wayne Kramer lays out some appealing garnish and he's hired the best wait staff in town (head waiter: William H. Macy), but in the end, it's a pretty bland buffet.
Macy plays Bernie Lootz, the natural conclusion of his progression of cinematic losers. His plants have died and his cat's run away; Lootz is such bad news that his mere proximity can "cool" any gambler on a winning streak. His work as a cooler essentially makes him an indentured servant as he works off his debt to mobbed-up casino kingpin Shelly Kaplow (a revved-up Alec Baldwin). Kaplow chews on every problem like it was a hunk of raw meat, and Bernie--who's gearing up to split upon payment--is next on the menu.
Distracting Shelly and stoking his anger are threats of modernization to his old fashioned casino, the Shangri-La. The men to whom he answers send ladder-climber Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), who immediately begins pushing his big plans (like the one about replacing Paul Sorvino's messed-up lounge singer with Joey Fatone's younger and more energetic model). Meanwhile, Lootz makes a gentle move on a new cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello), with unexpected results. When Natalie takes a shine to Bernie, the worm turns, and so does his invaluable bad luck.
Kramer works hard to overcome a mostly lackluster script by Frank Hannah. A credit sequence laying out the ethereal beauty (and pastel-glow gaudiness) of the landscape of dreams suggests unplumbed depths, and Mark Isham contributes a swanky jazz score. The story believes in luck, astrology, and superstition, and while the magic-realist karma is essential to the film, it's also overplayed. Ellen Greene's whole part is to tip, repeatedly, an empty cream pitcher at the sad-eyed Macy's coffee cup. Natalie turns out to be the cream in Bernie's coffee, offering sex and, in due course, love.
The film is at its best when letting actors act. Bello shines as the needy woman who discovers she'd rather give than take (though her role is pat in its conception). Baldwin, the ambassador of Mamet-land, brings his natural zest to bear on familiar material, while Macy effortlessly garners sympathy for a man finally placing bets on his own behalf. Macy's trademark hangdog act--here, his casino loping comes complete with limp--registers little, but his sexual stirring leads to a full-fledged rejuvenation for the character and Macy's performance.
Unfortunately, Hannah and Kramer are incurably disinterested in believable plotting or their cardboard-flimsy supporting characters: we shouldn't need to trade dramatic credibility for a fabulous tone. The problems rear up with the introduction of Bernie's dissolute son (Shawn Hatosy) and come to a head with an ending bound to jerk you around. The Cooler's a near-miss, but a win's a win and a loss is a loss.