Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by D.V. DeVincentis
Perhaps the most surprising element of Lay the Favorite, a pastel-colored look at the world of legal and illegal bookmaking and gambling, is its eerie sincerity. Within the first five minutes, the bubbly, ditzy lead character (Rebecca Hall) has left her job as a private dancer after a client pulls out a gun and she states, irony-free, that she wants to move to Las Vegas and become a cocktail waitress. Lay the Favorite, in this scene and in many others, is reminiscent of the fake movies fictional characters watch in real movies, empty and soulless yet filled with a number of recognizable actors stranded in underdeveloped roles.
Hall is Beth Raymer, whose consistently cheery nature endears her to a number of Vegas gamblers, chiefly Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis), who runs a gambling operation and is in need of someone who’s good with numbers and can run money to casinos to place bets. Beth, despite her outwardly vacuous nature, is just the person for the job and proves a quick learner. She’s also quick to run afoul of Dink’s jealous wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and soon tries her hand at bookmaking with a rival of Dink’s (Vince Vaughn), roping in her straight-arrow boyfriend (Joshua Jackson) into the whole business.
Whatever stretches of credibility crop up in Lay the Favorite—and oh, there are many—are even more inexplicable, considering that this is all apparently based on a true story. (In fact, Beth Raymer’s a real person, having written the memoir of the same name that inspired this film.) It’s not so much that this movie is riddled with implausibilities as much as it feels rushed. One minute, Beth is struggling to find a job, then she overhears two women chatting while they suntan in the nude, then one of those women recommends her to Dink. That Beth would eventually meet up with Dink, and he’d be impressed with her—though it’s mostly due to her looks at the start—is fine. But the chain of events leading to that meeting moves so rapidly that it’s too hard to keep up with.
The cast is game, if all seem just a bit miscast. Hall, a British actress, tries her best at a believable American accent; while her English brogue doesn’t make an unwelcome cameo, she sounds more like a Valley Girl than an Ohio native who’s moved around the country a few times. The real problem with Hall isn’t the performance, but her character, who comes across as extremely unlikable and off-puttingly selfish. Early on, it’s not obvious if this movie is making fun of Beth or on her side. By the end of the film, it’s disturbing to consider that we’re meant to sympathize and root for her. Hall’s a fine young actress, but she can’t balance her character’s innate anti-heroism with genuine pluck. Willis works very hard at trying to seem toothlessly menacing when Dink has a losing streak. Otherwise, he does an adequate job in playing Dink as a neuroses-filled doofus trying not to cave into his attraction to Beth. Vaughn actually does worse in the nonexistent accent contest here; his Noo Yawk voice is grating and painful to hear.
The script, by producer D.V. DeVincentis, is oddly meandering in the first hour. Though Beth moves from Tallahassee to Las Vegas to New York in the span of 60 minutes, there’s not much story going on. If we were just following her journey of discovery, realizing that though she may not have many “normal” talents, her ability to run a bookmaking operation is pretty solid, that’d be fine. However, the third act of Lay the Favorite accelerates into plot overkill, as Beth is threatened by a desperate client of federal involvement and jail time. Because Beth is so foolhardy in her choices (and able to blissfully reject common-sense proposals), it’s hard to want to rally behind her case.
Lay the Favorite reunites a few notable names from the great 2000 comedy High Fidelity: director Stephen Frears, writer DeVincentis, and Zeta-Jones. The topic matter here may be vastly different, as well as the genre, but it wouldn’t be wrong to hope Frears and DeVincentis couldn’t have harnessed a bit of the magic of the John Cusack-led romantic comedy into something even mildly special here. Despite an impressive and frankly overqualified cast, Lay the Favorite isn’t really bad, just lifeless, dead on arrival. The final third may be its most active, but after a dry, uninvolving first hour, Lay the Favorite can’t rouse the audience or its cast from their stupor.
— Josh Spiegel