William H. Macy plays Bernie, the Cooler of the title. He is a man whose luck is so bad that it not only infects his own life, but can be rubbed off on unsuspecting gamblers at the Golden Shangri-La casino where he works. By merely touching the table where a winner is betting he can change their luck to bad, thereby cooling off their winning streak. It is in this capacity that he meets a cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello) who begins a relationship with him after he cools the luck of a customer who gets fresh with her. As the unlikely couple begin to form a strong bond, Bernie's luck begins to change. It is when Shelly (Alec Baldwin), the casino manager and boss to both Bernie and Natalie imposes his will on the situation that Bernie's newfound luck and love are tested.
Macy has spent his career playing hapless losers and hard luck characters. In Bernie, he hits the jackpot, delivering a well modulated, brave performance. Brave because he allows Bernie to be shown for what he really is, a not overly attractive, middle aged loser in both body and spirit. Macy shows us a lot of himself both literally and figuratively and it is that which brings a sense of truth to the performance.
Baldwin, who is being billed as a mere co-star is actually a major player in the story. Shelly is a character who utilizes more brute force than the usual steely-eyed verbal barrages that Baldwin excels at. But Shelly is a great character for Baldwin, a man so sure of his place in life and even in Vegas history that he will not bend under any amount of pressure. The Golden Shangri-La is, according to Shelly, the last of the old-style Vegas casinos. The proposed remodel of the casino threatens Shelly at a deep level, making him all the more inflexible. This is definitely bad news for anyone Shelly comes into contact with who would try to thwart his will in any way, including Bernie and Natalie. It is a tribute to Baldwin that the Shelly is someone the audience can never find it in their hearts to dislike completely, despite his intolerable actions.
If in the end, the improbabilities of the story overshadow the ending, it is a fairly minor consideration. This is a movie of performances more than storytelling. Macy's performance is so fine and delicate that one is hard pressed to see how difficult it must have been to do. Bello, as Natalie, shows an underlying fragility that draws the viewer to her and shows us why Bernie would love her. And Baldwin is the hurricane force wind that rages and storms through the proceedings. And it is the audience who is lucky enough to see it all.