Lay the Favorite (United States/United Kingdom, 2012)December 04, 2012
Despite the stewardship of director Stephen Frears and the participation of Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Vince Vaughn, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lay the Favorite, a would-be breezy comedy set in the world of grifters and gamblers, is as forgettable a motion picture as can be found during the 2012 holiday season. On autopilot from beginning to end, Lay the Favorite feels like sitcom blown up to big-screen proportions. The laughs aren't raucous or numerous, the character development is sketchy at best, and the insider's perspective on bookies and gambling is superficial.
The movie's saving grace is Bruce Willis, who gives a fine performance as Dink Heimowitz, a gambler who runs a high-tech, high octane betting operation out of his Las Vegas office. Dink is savvy but he's also an addict and, as is true of any gambler, he has hot streaks and cold streaks. He's great to be around when things are going well and not so great to be around after a few big losses. Dink is the only believable person in a movie that deals in caricatures.
The main character is Beth Raymer (Rebecca Hall), a Florida stripper who decides to follow her dream and become a Vegas cocktail waitress. After having relocated, she discovers her desired career isn't that easy to break into ("it's a union town," she's informed). Luckily for her, she is introduced to Dink. She sees his big bank account and he sees something other than her boobs and butt. Beth may not know much about gambling but she's a numbers whiz. Recognizing this, Dink hires her - a move that doesn't go over well with his hyper-jealous shrew of a wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones). After Tulip forces Dink to fire Beth, she snags a job working for Rosie (Vince Vaughn), a bookie who runs an illegal operation in New York, and finds love with Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), a nice-guy journalist.
One of the problems with Lay the Favorite is that Beth isn't sufficiently compelling to form the centerpiece of the movie. During the first half of the movie, when Dink is around, there's some energy but, once he's largely out of the picture, Beth proves ineffective at holding the viewer's attention. Part of it is that Rebecca Hall seems to be channeling Elizabeth Berkeley from Showgirls. Another issue is that she's surrounded by supporting characters who are bland (Jeremy) or annoying (Rosie). Meanwhile, the movie's narrative skates along toward a predictable conclusion without providing any strong reason to convince us the trip is worth taking.
Watching Lay the Favorite, I felt like I was being introduced to a series of missed opportunities. The relationship that develops between Dink and Beth has genuine promise. It's playful with hint of affection and sexual tension. But it's dropped far too soon and with too little fanfare. Maybe this is the way it happened in real-life (the production is based on Beth's memoir) but a filmmaker like Frears should be able to use a little artistic license. Then there's the way the movie handles the world of high-stakes gamblers and bookies. There's a sense that we should glean some insight into how these people operate, but that doesn't happen. The screenplay glosses over the details. It's hard to understand the stakes for the characters when too little information has been provided about the arena in which they're playing. I don't expect detail on the level of Casino or Two for the Money from Lay the Favorite, but something more than a high level summary would have been welcome. (And this is from the director of The Grifters.)
It's been six years since Frears has made an art house splash (2006's The Queen earned him his second Best Director Oscar nomination) and Lay the Favorite isn't going to change his fortunes. In fact, this may be his least memorable offering since 1998's The Hi-Lo Country. Chances are, not many reading this will recall that production, and for good reason. It won't take nearly as long to forget Lay the Favorite. It's the epitome of mediocrity - not a phrase often associated with a director having Frears' track record.
Lay the Favorite (United States/United Kingdom, 2012)
Cast: Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson, Laura Prepon
Screenplay: D.V. DeVincentis, based on the memoir by Beth Raymer
Cinematography: Michael McDonough
Music: James Seymour Brett
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company