For maybe 30 minutes or so, The Cooler is one of those sharp, interesting, well-acted little independent movies that allow you to relax with a low-keyed job well done.
It opens in the neon gloaming of Las Vegas, then quickly introduces us to Bernie (William H. Macy), the titular character, so called because, when he sidles up to some lucky schmuck on a hot streak at a gaming table, the guy's luck instantly turns cool. In the words of his volatile boss and long-time partner in crime, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin, channeling Joe Pesci), Bernie is "shitty luck incarnate," or "Kryptonite on a stick." So naturally Shelly doesn't want to lose Bernie, who claims to have invented the phrase "easy mark" (an amusing touch of movie apocrypha, reminiscent of the time Hume Cronin played the man who invented the bad-breath test).
But lose him he will, in seven days, when Bernie finally repays a debt that began with Shelly, who's an old-fashioned guy, shattering Bernie's kneecap. He then indentured his luckless friend to serve as a "cooler" at the casino that Shelly manages but doesn't own, and that's on the verge of being handed over to a Harvard hotshot (Ron Livingston) who wants it to look and operate more like the "new" Las Vegas (an IMAX theater, a roller coaster, and families).
This is all marginally interesting, if familiar, and early on, writer/director Wayne Kramer manages a few nice touches (Bernie is such a loser that there's no cream left for his coffee). At its heart The Cooler is a dolorous parable about fate and destiny in America's most arid Sin City: Although everyone knows that casinos succeed because the odds are in their favor, Bernie and Shelly believe in their archaic superstitions. So does Natalie (Maria Bello), a pretty cocktail waitress who takes a shine to Bernie when she does his astrological chart and finds them to be suitably matched.
If The Cooler were more of a black comedy, Kramer might have made a West Coast Atlantic City. Vegas is, after all, an ersatz desert town, invented by a gangster to exploit people's avarice and lechery. But Kramer is a rather bad storyteller. His movie lacks irony, and it becomes a somewhat brutal and banal romantic melodrama: A croaking, crack-addled old lounge singer (Paul Sorvino) dies; a flashy young stud (Joey Fatone) takes his place; and Bernie's estranged son (Shawn Hatosy) shows up with a coke-sniffing pregnant wife and a scam of his own.
It all flounders grandly, resolving itself with a ridiculous deus ex machina that I think is supposed to be funny. The acting is enjoyable, although Macy has become almost too plaintive and routine at playing this kind of schlub. Toward the end, when Bernie has his inevitable run of good luck at the craps table, an onlooker in the rapt casino crowd mumbles, "Is he fuckin' crazy?" as Bernie makes a dangerous bet. No, I wanted to tell him. Not crazy. Just a fuckin' movie character.