Lay the Favorite, 2012.
Directed by Stephen Frears.
Starring Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rebecca Hall, Joshua Jackson, Vince Vaughn, Laura Prepon, John Carrol Lynch, Corbin Bersen and Frank Grillo.
An exuberant ex-private dancer Beth (Rebecca Hall) arrives in Las Vegas in search of her ultimate dream to become a cocktail waitress. Fate leads her to Dink (Bruce Willis), a charming, old-school gambler who seeing beyond the ditzy façade, takes a shine to Beth, recruiting her as his good luck charm.
Stephen Frears is a director and filmmaker known for work as varied as Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity and The Grifters and is seen to be someone with a propensity to take surprising changes of direction whenever possible. With Lay the Favorite, a lightly amusing, if grossly underwhelming, comedy drama – or dramedy, if you insist on it – Frears takes another unexpected (and many would say, wrong) turn.
Based on the memoirs of erotic dancer turned sports bookmaker and lucky charm Beth Raymer, the movie is a flawed and unashamedly cute look at the occasionally glamorous and often desperate world of American gambling.
Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, The Town) is likeable enough as the central figure in what would be judged as a too weird to be true tale if it wasn’t based on actual events (however poetically embellished).
Following Beth’s lightheaded salsa through life, from quitting her job as an ‘exotic dancer’ and leaving for Las Vegas to life as a cocktail waitress and then a Rainman-esque statistics genius, Lay the Favorite depends on a pretty convoluted narrative thread. At times it feels as though it is going to unravel at any moment, almost as if the memory of Raymer has been somewhat selective and chosen to miss out the parts that link scenes in any conventional or lucid fashion.
Much of it revolves around Beth’s mixture of ditzy and fortuitous and the relationships she forms with three men; Bruce Willis’ (Die Hard, The Expendables 2) largely besotted bookmaker Dink, Vince Vaughn’s (Wedding Crashers, The Watch) creepy seemingly life-coached rival and later, Joshua Jackson’s (The Skulls, Dawson’s Creek) solid, reliable reporter Jeremy.
Catherine Zeta-Jones (Traffic, Chicago) displays a surprisingly intense comedic turn as Dink’s controlling wife Tulip, the reason why he feels he has to fire Beth and put her on the trail to working for Vaughn’s go-getting boss.
None of the quick fire routines of The Grifters make their way into this rushed and badly executed piece. Non sports fans are likely to find much of the detail, or what there is, of the betting world meandering and dull, whereas a lot of the relationship interaction is over played and over the top, almost sit-com style.
Despite sterling support a strong cast largely from Willis as Beth’s (first) manic bookie boss and uncomfortable love interest and John Carroll Lynch’s (Shutter Island, Zodiac) late appearance as a bumbling hit man, the movie feels undeveloped and distinctly patchy. It is cute enough and you certainly wouldn’t want to see it out on the street sleeping rough, but you expect something far more accomplished from Frears and those involved. With all of Raymer’s capacity for picking out a winner, you can’t help feeling she could have made a better bet of a film adaptation.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.