The premise of "The Cooler" is so implausible on its face that it almost, but not quite, destroys any hope that the audience will suspend its disbelief and actually follow the movie. In a town that's built on hard math, it presupposes that a man with nothing but bad luck a) exists; and b) can be hired by a casino to communicate his bad luck to casino winners. In the film he's called a cooler; his name is Bernie Lootz, and he's played by William H. Macy in one of his patented shy loser roles: he need only brush past someone on a winning streak to change that poor man's luck. No wonder Shelly, the casino boss (Alec Baldwin), wants him around.
In fact Bernie and Shelly go way back together. Bernie walks with a limp because Shelly had him kneecapped for a scam that didn't work out. And yet they are friends, of a sort. Shelly has him on a leash at the Shangri-La, and he's close to paying off the $100,000 he supposedly owes Shelly for the deal, spending his time as a kind of indentured servant, walking around the casino changing gamblers' luck. Now he's about to leave, and finds himself falling for cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). He can't believe his good fortune; the first time they sleep together he is too excited to satisfy her. "I've had worse," she says comfortingly.
But Shelly is not about to give up Bernie without a fight, and when Bernie's long-lost son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) shows up with his pregnant wife he gets the chance. Mikey is a sleazy con artist, which Shelly spots and uses to force Bernie into staying. In fact Shelly is the most interesting character in the film, and Baldwin makes the most of the role. Both sadist and sentimentalist, he is old-fashioned enough to fight his partners over their plans to convert the casino into a Steve Wynn-type themed fantasy, and to replace the aging lounge singer, heroin-addicted Buddy Stafford (Paul Sorvino), with a hotter revue. How he deals with Buddy is perhaps the most believable, and saddest, moment in the film.
It was an interesting choice to use a patented schlub like Macy as the lead - with star billing above the title, no less - but it might have worked better to have used someone less stereotyped, someone less predictable for an audience. Macy is a thoughtful actor, and has done fine work in his career; but his voice, with that thin, flat nasal sound, never seems to change; it's recognizable a mile off, and for a character actor that is a limitation. Bello is fine as the whore with a heart of gold, and Baldwin holds the film together. But the script, both in its opening conceit and its bizarrely ludicrous ending, simply undercuts any possibility of belief. There's good material in between, but it's not enough to save the film.