Boasting one of those scripts where lines can be predicted before they are delivered, and featuring a realistic tone that is all wrong for such an outrageous storyline, the film winds up feeling more goofy than profound.
William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a former gambler who has essentially sold his soul to the devil in order to survive. After Bernie built up a large gambling debt, Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin), the owner of old-school casino, the Shangri-La, gave him a debilitating injury. As further punishment, Bernie was forced to become the casino's "Cooler," able to turn a gambler's luck bad by simply standing next to him or her, or by touching the gambling station. His ability to do this comes off as some sort of weird, Old Vegas evil superpower.
Bernie has every intention of finishing out his verbal contract with Shelly and hitting the road. His life gets an unexpected excitement shot to the arm when Natalie (Maria Bello), a mysterious and beautiful cocktail waitress, steps into his life. Their love affair is cute, thanks mostly to Bello's refusal to acknowledge that the material she is working with is sloppy and stereotypical.
Macy has never been so bland and uninteresting, which is probably a requirement for the role of unluckiest guy in the world. Still, there must've been something the guy could've done to spice the role up a bit. It's essentially a re-tread of his breakthrough role in Fargo, with all the fun and quirky traits removed. Macy limps around the casino looking somber, and cracks the occasional smile when he sees Bello naked. His performance garners little sympathy for Bernie's plight.
While a subplot involving efforts to make the Shangri-La into a family attraction feels like it could've had an entire--and better--movie made out of it, another involving Bernie's long-lost son is terrible. Shawn Hatosy gives an awful performance as Mikey the wayward son, scamming casino tables with his pregnant wife (Estella Warren, who gives Hatosy a run for his money in the bad-acting department). The existence of these characters feels like nothing more than a script device to get Bernie into one last jam for the film's final act.
The movie feels like it should've been some sort of outrageous, dark comedy and Vegas satire, rather than the ode to old-school gambling it tries to be. Bernie's luck-killing superpower just doesn't feel at home and authentic in a film that otherwise sticks close to reality. A gloomy jazz band soundtrack does nothing but accentuate the drabness of Macy's performance, making the pace of the film seem interminable.
Receiving much year-end critical accolades is Baldwin, who, like Bello, rises above the shaky material. Baldwin is so good that I would've preferred a film in which Bernie was just a silly side character, with the majority of time spent on slimy Shelly. Ron Livingston is also good as a young punk trying to convince Shelly to renovate and expand his casino. Again, I was far more interested in him than anything to do with Bernie.
The Cooler, which used Reno locations as a substitute for Old Vegas, has some goodness in it. That goodness is so apparent because the rest of the film around it is often terrible. Baldwin and Bello actually have shots at Oscar nominations, but don't expect the same for Macy and the film. They are duds.