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Lay the Favorite

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson, Vince Vaughn, Frank Grillo, Corbin Bernsen, Wendell Pierce, John Carroll Lynch

(Emmett/Furla Films, Random House Films, Likely Story, Ruby Films; US DVD: 5 Mar 2013)

In Lay the Favorite—a barely passable film from A-grade filmmakers—we’re expected to believe a few more contrivances than your average comedy about gambling. Yes, there are plenty of last chance winners, odds busters, and rubber-band banks of money being tossed around. Yet the most ridiculous aspects of this supposedly true story (it’s based on a memoir) may be connected: all the gamblers, bookies, and money men are kind-hearted, nonthreatening characters played by affable, upper level movie stars.


Maybe I’ve seen Casino too many times, but I simply couldn’t believe how understanding the major bookies in Lay the Favorite were with people who either didn’t pay them, lost them money, or blatantly stole from them. At one point, a woman steals $40,000 from Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis). He invites her back to headquarters so they can “work out a payment plan”. I thought he was joking. I thought this was when he finally put a hit on someone, or at least broke out the baseball bat. Nope. He was serious. She wasn’t punished. Who are these bookies, and why can’t they all be this nice?


I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The Weinstein Company absolutely buried this film on its theatrical release. Despite starring Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rebecca Hall, and Vince Vaughn, it was only in theaters for three days. This is a long way of saying I’m guessing most of you weren’t part of its $20,998 gross, and I should give some context.


Rebecca Hall, hot off her star-making turns in Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2008 and The Town in 2010, landed another juicy role as Beth, a stripper from Florida who moves to Las Vegas on a whim with aspirations to be, of all things, a cocktail waitress. You see, Beth is a simpleton. It’s not clear if it’s by choice or unfortunate genetics, but she doesn’t ask for much. Just a living and a good time. Beth soon meets Dink, a genial bookie with just the right amount of quirk. Dink runs a gambling operation in Vegas with a couple other guys and is more than willing to help the slow-witted Beth how it all works.


Despite not being able to tell a favorite from an underdog when she arrives, Beth soon becomes an integral part of the operation. From there, things get messy. What may seem like interesting anecdotes about a goofy lady in a memoir come off as mindless meandering by a batty succubus in the film. That is to say there’s not much structure in Lay the Favorite.


Beth is depicted as whimsical, and many of her decisions are made at the drop of a hat. Maybe she did things that way in real life, but here it throws the viewer off-kilter. She’s our protagonist. She’s supposed to have a problem to solve. The only problem she seems to have is the inability to make decisions.


It’s not a particularly compelling conundrum for a feature to be based on, and it’s not helped along by Hall’s performance. A wise man once said it takes a smart person to play dumb well. Hall very well may be a smart person, but she can’t pull off this bimbo role in an appealing way. She has a weird hook on some of her words. The inflection in her accent isn’t necessarily off, but it’s certainly not pleasant to the ear. Mainly, though, Beth never really does anything to redeem her selfish actions. Why are we supposed to care about a dumb stripper with no real aspirations who doesn’t understand why it’s not OK to fall in love with her married boss?


Even more shocking than the script’s deaf ear to empathy is its ability to attract talent. Let’s start behind the camera with director Stephen Frears, whose past body of work includes The Queen and High Fidelity along with two Oscar nominations. Why he chose this scrap heap of a movie to tackle is beyond me. Bruce Willis’ inclusion makes sense. The man will make the worst piece of dreck to come out of Hollywood for the right amount of money. The same could be said for Vince Vaughn, but he seems to be a little pickier with his projects than Willis. Zeta-Jones and Joshua Jackson will also take anything thrown their way these days, a disappointing reality for the former considering the Oscar on her mantle.


Yet these people give it their all and it shows. Their characters may not perfectly coalesce, but I’ll be damned if they’re not likable. Willis with his knee-high tube socks and t-shirts from obscure sporting events. Vaughn with his patented motor mouth and spasmodic back-and-forth from charm to anger. Zeta-Jones with her comically high vocal range. Jackson with, well, whatever fans of Jackson seem to like about him.


Little light is shed on the production in the disc’s only bonus feature. There are seven minutes of deleted scenes, almost all of which focus on a tertiary character who already had too much screen time. Still, the rest of the cast finds a tone to live and breath in while Hall struggles to set one. Perhaps it was the pressures of playing the protagonist, but Lay the Favorite only works when everyone is laid back. I guess if you take the thrill out of gambling, it’s best to just have a good time.

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Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.


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