Sundance 2012: ‘Lay the Favorite’ exasperates with flat characters and pushes annoying to new heights

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Lay the Favorite

Directed by Stephen Frears

D.V. DeVincentis (screenplay)

2012, USA

Stephen Frears’ Lay the Favorite isn’t in the least entertaining or populated by characters that anyone would wish to know. It’s incredibly hard to conceive of it’s main character actually existing as we see her represented and absolutely confounding that such a vacant person could end up getting a book or movie deal off of a story that leads us right back to where we start. These are people that live for money and excitement but visibly little else.  A very easy going Bruce Willis plays Dink (a name brought up repeatedly for added humor as if it’s a clever running joke) a seasoned Vegas bookie. He takes high end bets while assisted by a small but loyal crew. Into his operation enters Beth Raymer (Rebecca Hall) a bubbly, naive young woman in short shorts with big ambitions. It’s too bad she hasn’t a clue what those ambitions are. After an unfulfilling stint as a stripper, she comes to the city without a job but flying high on optimism. Taken into the team as a pretty face and voice, Beth starts getting big returns for Dink. If from this point on the film was able to flesh out why exactly we should care about anyone (particularly Beth) or veered into a satire of the bookie lifestyle then that would be something to entice us. Instead what we are left with is a cast chock full of celebrities in familiar archetypes and terribly complacent in their acting, as if this is a vacation we should feel privileged to watch.

As Dink, Willis throws half-hearted tantrums- feeble acts of machismo. When unlucky at work he clears rooms by over-turning tables but then cowers in indecisive fear when holding hands with Beth or confronted by the wrath of his wife. His wife Tulip is played by Catherine Zeta-Jones who has never been so unlikeable. Exceedingly vain and touchy, she threatens her husband at every turn. We’re told that she loves him and he really loves her but are left with no evidence as to why except for the length of their relationship. There is a lot of talk about whether Beth is a lucky charm for Dink and whether Tulip will allow an affair. This amounts to yelling, jealously and finally boredom on behalf of the viewer. What then remains to keep us interested? Beth stumbles into this job and liking Dink. She enjoys being at the center of the action but doesn’t give a damn that it might destroy Dink’s marriage as she’s having too much fun. As the games Dink and Beth help clients bet on aren’t seen at length there is zero to invest in or root for to create tension. The film prompts us that Beth and Dink helping each other find a true sense of happiness is what matters. The problem with this is that the connection they have seems artificial and weak, linked to money more than anything else. With nothing about their personalities or professions to engross us, we’re waiting for revelatory events and profound personal epiphanies that never come.

Hall, a decently respected British actress who appeared in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is almost unrecognizable as Beth. If you know her other work, you’ll be wishing that she that would somehow snap of it or that suddenly you’ll find out Beth has been putting on an act to con Dink. Beth is ditsy, sickeningly positive and wriggles around situations with the voice a little girl. The real Beth appeared at a Q & A session after a screening at Sundance and it turns out that Hall is actually doing a masterful impression of her bumble gum popping exuberance for life. Uncanniness aside, it’s impossible to endorse this film. It continually comes across that Beth’s actions are only guided by her attraction to a father figure who will give her direction in life and approve key decisions. To buy into this story is to basically champion a passive woman-child who surrounds herself with people who only challenge her insomuch as they encourage her to shout a little louder.

– Lane Scarberry

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  1. Lane Scarberry says

    Based on the film alone, I wrote that Beth was ditsy because of her juvenile dialogue and composure. She needed to be babied at every turn and behaved blankly when confronted by the fact that she was breaking a marriage apart. I called her naive and passive because she was led into and out of every situation by the men in her life. What I found insulting and unlikable about the female characters was their lack of agency and strength. Their thoughts almost exclusively swirled around Dink. Beth acted completely lost without male guidance and Zeta-Jones’ character seemed as if she could not cope without Dink’s attention. Instead of portraying Tulip as resilient, we see her feeble and covered in bandages after plastic surgery. What we know of her private thoughts then is that she’s completely insecure about her looks and thinks that looking youthful can somehow makes things better. I do think Hall did a great job and that’s wonderful that the real person has achieved so much but I just couldn’t get behind the character of Beth. I think the film didn’t fundamentally answer why we should be cheering for her.

  2. Peggy McLaughlin says

    I saw this film opening night at Sundance. Though the narrative did spiral toward the end, I certainly didn’t see the women–Hall and Zeta-Jones as vacant or unlikeable. In fact, I found Hall’s performance an absolute delight. Who knew she had it in her to be a top-notch comedienne? It was a difficult role and she pulled it off.

    I am now reading the book and it’s clear that the screenwriter did take a number of creative liberties with the material. The “real” Beth is actually a Columbia graduate who received a Fulbright and has supported herself as a writer and journalist since the publication of Lay the Favorite. Not too bad for a ditsy, naive chick in short shorts.

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