I had the pleasure of watching two great casino movies this year; "Owning Mahowny" and the best movie multiplex-goers never saw this year, Wayne Kramer's "The Cooler." The casino is such an exciting and fascinating place to be (especially when it's your money on the line) that no wonder the energy is often transcribed into film.
Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is such an unlucky person that he's employed by the Shangri-La casino as a 'cooler' who kills winning streaks just by being next to a hot gambler.
As one would imagine, Bernie is a miserable person. Wouldn't you be too if it was your job to give other people bad luck? We watch Bernie skulking the casino floor looking for anyone who's up on the house. With a simple brush over the shoulder, or a casual "hello," the winning player finds himself losing chips at a blitzing rate.
Bernie's boss, Shelly, is played by Alec Baldwin who deserves Best Supporting Actor at this year's Academy Awards. With a fierce attitude and bullying presence, Baldwin creates one of the most intimidating characters we've seen this year.
Bernie and Shelly have a history together. But don't assume they were friends. After Bernie found himself in debt, Shelly broke his kneecap. He then had it fixed just good enough so Bernie could walk again with a staggering limp. With no money to repay Shelly, Bernie was put on the Shangri-La payroll forced to give a portion of his paycheck to Shelly.
But with only a week to go before his obligation is complete, Bernie informs Shelly that he's done and will be leaving Las Vegas for good. Shelly simply won't let that happen as Bernie is the best cooler he ever laid his greedy eyes on.
While working a shift, Bernie meets one of the casino waitresses, Natalie (Maria Bello), and they instantly connect at least on a social level. Bernie warns her that he is unlucky and nothing good ever happens to him to the people he's around. They see each other anyway despite all the misfortunes, mishaps and pratfalls that happen to Bernie because he's so damn unlucky. On top of that, there's something about Natalie we don't know from the beginning. She's hiding something.
The movie is full of twists and suprieses, but it only gets more complicated when Bernie's son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) shows up unexpectedly with his wife Charlene (Estella Warren). Normally it's a blessing when someone runs into an old friend or unfamiliar relative, but this is Bernie we're talking about. When we meet his son and perhaps daughter-in-law, we learn that they're broke, pregnant and addicted to drugs.
Hatosy's character best shows us the kind of person Bernie is; a pathetic loser. Even worse, a pathetic loser with a soft heart. Have you ever felt like slapping someone you know across the back of their head because they're so gullible? And sure enough Bernie is suckered into giving his savings to his son out of sympathy and guilt for not being there to raise him.