Like a save-your-soul handbill thrust into the hands of a puzzled vacationer by a street-corner evangelist, "The Cooler" approaches the subject of Las Vegas sleaze with a disdainful chorus of tsk, tsk. Yet it isn't merely that moralism-by-exploitation that makes the movie such a disappointment; it's the feeling that we're being swindled out of the markedly different (and not coincidentally, more benign) picture we bought into.
You'd expect light, vaguely mystical comedy from a story about a sad sack (William H. Macy) whose physical presence is enough to halt any high roller's lucky streak -- and who finds that valuable gift ebbing when he falls in love with a frowzy cocktail waitress. But director/ co-writer Wayne Kramer (no, not the former MC5 axeman) would rather spin a gratuitously seedy, derivative tale of deadly sins run amok than make good on a scripted premise. It's difficult to maintain the required level of superstition as the film's title schlub, Bernie Lootz, passes among the gaming tables of the casino where he works, his very proximity effecting an instant downturn in the fortunes of the rabid gamblers. Everything else in this movie conforms to a dreary venality that is obviously Kramer's idea of realism. So where's the room to believe in magical abilities that are never challenged or explained by the script?
A simple kindness earns Bernie the affection of Natalie (Maria Bello), a cheap but well-meaning drink jockey who's infinitely more worldly than him in bedroom affairs but even lower on the Vegas food chain. Their suspiciously fast-moving courtship consists of unnecessarily graphic sexual encounters (Dying to see Bill Macy's ass? Here's your chance) and baldly functional conversations that give Kramer and co-writer Frank Hannah an excuse to show off the nuggets of wisdom they've gleaned about the gambling business and other scam operations. There's a lot to be learned from these exchanges -- not enough of it, unfortunately, about the characters themselves.
As one might infer from the highly skewed award nominations "The Cooler" has thus far amassed, this is really a film about Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), the oily casino manager who employs both Bernie and Natalie. An unreconstructed Sin City titan, Shelly sees nothing odd about sending a human bad-luck charm out on the floor to "cool" a winning frenzy. (Neither is he above crushing a deadbeat's kneecap with a baseball bat, which is how Bernie came into his debt in the first place.) As the movie begins, though, a stiff wind of change is blowing down the strip: Bernie, his dues to the house nearly repaid, is about to fly the coop, while Shelly's corporate bosses are pushing for operational updates that will bring the casino into line with its cleaned-up contemporaries in the "new Vegas." The end of an era hangs in the air as old-school ruffian Shelly tries to preserve his leopard-lined setup by any means necessary. The most sophisticated enjoyment the film has to offer lies in determining if the character is a psychopathic manipulator or a brutal but caring father figure. Sometimes those roles intertwine, as when he dispenses a soothing quantity of heroin to a hopelessly addicted lounge singer (Paul Sorvino, cleverly introduced to the strains of "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me").
Unfortunately, the latter's needle-injecting habits are spied in a tight close-up that typifies the movie's voyeuristic, straight-off-the-bus style. One "shocking" scene of violence, stolen outright from the Billy Batts murder in "GoodFellas," is an appropriately secondhand bit of proof for Kramer's underwhelming thesis that people in Vegas like to knock boots and beat each other bloody. (Hope those revelations don't spoil anyone's illusions.)
Having to fight for our attention with all this borrowed unpleasantness practically makes poor Bernie a spectator to his own story; Natalie, meanwhile, is relegated to a few ill-timed autobiographical speeches and tears over the cruel fates that are about to befall her nebbish boyfriend. Maybe he'd be better positioned to ride out the tough times if the film endowed him with more than two real traits -- endless gullibility and a good heart. The former quality comes into play as certain unscrupulous parties plot to make the cooler their patsy, but the stings he falls for are telegraphed so far in advance that it's hard for us to imagine how he's survived in Vegas at all. And anyway, a certain futility permeates Bernie's entire arc: He's leaving town at the end of a week, so how concerned should we be that love has extinguished his powers of luck removal?
And while we're asking questions, can anyone explain just which Las Vegas Kramer is concerned with? Shelly's superiors talk of a new family-friendliness that's sweeping the city; in our reality, of course, the pendulum has by now swung back in the opposite direction. A crucial monologue that comes much later has Shelly hypothesizing that just such a reversal may one day place, thus appearing to fix "The Cooler" as a period piece set sometime in the last 10 years. What call there is for such a thing is probably only drowned out by the clamor for movies that present themselves as romantic fantasias and then take a baseball bat to our knees.