The scene of Bernie's trials is a seedy, edge-of-town Las Vegas casino called the Golden Shangri-La. The lounge singer (another fine character man, Paul Sorvino) is a sweating junkie, and the pit bosses look like they've been cured in cigar smoke. The dark prince of this fiefdom is Shelly Kaplow (played to the hilt by Alec Baldwin), whose only endearing quality is his sentimental regard for Vegas' prefamily-entertainment 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 nightmarish losses at the Shangri-La's tables, poor Bernie has been whacked in the knee with a baseball bat and 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.
The movie's pivotal conceit, concocted by South African-born director Wayne Kramer (Crossing Over) and his cowriter, a Scot named Frank Hannah, is that their embattled loser can be transformed by love. When Bernie hooks up with a weary Shangri-La cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello, whose chiseled blondness suggests Sharon Stone), his luck begins to improve. Following one of the most graphic sex scenes in any recent movie, the loser and the failed showgirl mount a revolt against Shelly's tyranny and begin to climb out of the abyss, healing each other's wounds along the way. But Shelly is under fire from the Shangri-La's soulless new owners to modernize, which puts him in an even more violent state of mind; to make things worse, Bernie's bitter, scamming son (Shawn Hatosy) has materialized with a pregnant wife in tow.
In its lowdown way, The Cooler is a triumph of atmosphere. The sad-eyed Bello is just right as a woman on the edge of disaster. And the cold fury Baldwin brings to Shelly gives him just the right satanic bent. Beautifully shot by cinematographer James Whitaker and perfectly scored by Mark Isham, the film might work just fine were it not for the huge lump of sunny redemption it asks us to swallow. Even in Las Vegas, possibly the most irrational place on Earth, drama demands a bit of logic.
But props to the talented Macy, who tries hard to convince us that poor Bernie ("Kryptonite on a stick," Shelly 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?