The Cooler is about forces beyond our control–forces that, in typical human fashion, people try to control anyway.
Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is a loser, a man with a bad haircut and a shapeless suit who gives off failure like a bad smell. He works for a casino, the Shangri-La, where he serves as a “cooler,” someone who joins players on a hot streak and brings their luck to a swift and messy end. He’s days away from paying off the last of his debt to casino boss Shelly (Alec Baldwin), and then, he says, he’s gone. He wants to go somewhere where he can tell the difference between night and day. Into his last days at the casino comes Natalie (Maria Bello), a vibrant, playful cocktail waitress with some emotional baggage. The two unexpectedly fall in love, and Bernie’s luck–and its effect on others–begins to change.
Meanwhile, Shelly is wrestling to keep control of the Shangri-La, which is on the verge of falling to completely commercialized, completely corporate forces personified by a smug Ivy League grad (Ron Livingston, here using his smooth, slightly smarmy good looks to their best advantage). About a decade after playing the slickly cutthroat young guy from corporate in Glengarry Glen Ross, the one who sets up Shelley Levene’s tragedy, Baldwin is now literally the Shelly, the character being overrun by the forces of change. He’s not a good person–part of what he resents is Vegas losing its sense of brutal violence, its habit of rewarding cheaters and debtors with shattered kneecaps rather than police records–but Baldwin invests him with a kind of dark soul despite everything. He’s a brutal, elitist prick and the film’s primary antagonist, but he has a sense of taste, and he has loyalties and standards that aren’t entirely governed by the latest market reports. As good as Macy and Bello are–and they’re great, with their chemistry having a warm, naturalistic texture–this is Baldwin’s movie, with the Bernie/Natalie romance serving as the stakes for a final assault on Shelly’s hubris. He’s always been the man in control, manipulating luck via Bernie and Bernie via money and friendship, deploying sex and ruthlessness like they’ll never get out of hand. He’s been a man of his time and place, but both time and place have been changing out from underneath him.
The film has some spots of weak direction–slow-mo and X-ray vision come to mind–and maybe a little more shagginess, particularly via Bernie’s estranged son, than is really good for it. But the romantic struggle of two people just wanting to get out of the city’s shadow and the power struggle of the man who just wants to keep being the figure that casts that shadow combine for a powerful, memorable story.
The Cooler is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime.