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Lay the Favorite

Lady Vegas 2012 | 94 min | R | 1.85:1

Lay the Favorite


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Theatrical release date

 07 December, 2012
 22 June, 2012

Country of origin

 United States

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Screenshots from Lay the Favorite Blu-ray

Lay the Favorite Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, November 21, 2012

There is a lot of talented people involved with the making of the gambling dramedy, “Lay the Favorite,” rendering the non-committal attitude of the piece rather perplexing. Despite a swirling atmosphere of degenerates and jealousy, the material doesn’t spark to life, finding director Stephen Frears strangely powerless when it comes to infusing the work with resonance and, in some cases, genuine laughs. Perhaps those already hip-deep in the world of sports betting might be able to suck out the juices of experience that gift the movie its most authentic moments, though even that level of appreciation seems like a long shot, with much of “Lay the Favorite” sluggishly trying to make sense of a story it doesn’t appear to believe in.

A young Floridian on the hunt for quick cash, Beth (Rebecca Hall) is struggling to maintain interest in her increasingly dangerous stripping adventures, finally settling on a relocation to Las Vegas to make her fortune as a cocktail waitress. Overwhelmed by the lack of job prospects in Sin City, Beth stumbles into work as an assistant to Dink (Bruce Willis), a famous high-stakes gambler working an enormous network of events and sportsbooks, who’s in need of someone he can trust to move large amounts of cash. Showing skill with numbers and phone etiquette, Beth quickly becomes invaluable to Dink’s operation, while developing a crush on her boss, much to the horror of the addict’s wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Dealing with Dink’s volatile personality, chained to his gambling results, Beth looks for love with journalist Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), while testing the waters with her own betting operation, working with Rosie (Vince Vaughn), a blowhard New York gambling authority who somehow remains one step ahead of the law.

The Beth of the movie is actually Beth Raymer, who funneled her experiences with high-stakes gamblers into a 2010 novel, adapted for the screen by D.V. DeVincentis, writer of “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “High Fidelity.” Her understanding of casino conduct and erratic employment efforts appear to be successfully translated to the final product, observing Frears happily embracing the tucked-away offices and television atmosphere of the gambling culture, creating an insider’s look at the escalation of such heated enterprises. In fact, the highlights of the picture remain with Dink and Beth as they digest numerous wins and losses, passing around fortunes on a daily basis, with the bettor riding the sweep of his monetary dreams with a profound instability that pushes the impressionable woman in and out of a job throughout the film. The addiction and anxiety that comes along with this lifestyle is effectively communicated, along with a certain clenched fist of power as Dink manipulates the odds with his enormous wagers, getting off on the show of force.

Unfortunately, “Lay the Favorite” doesn’t remain close to its greatest dramatic inspiration, wandering off to inspect Beth’s romantic inclinations toward Dink, who keeps his eyes peeled for any signs of Tulip and her jealous rage. Mercifully, the script doesn’t indulge the pairing more than necessary, keeping the duo refreshingly chaste despite their mutual attraction. Love stings are instead reserved for Jeremy, but he’s a wildly underdeveloped character, weakening his impact on the story. Time spent with Rosie also disappoints, finding the hyperactive New Yorker more baffling than bewitching, performed by Vaughn in such an obnoxious manner it makes one wonder why Beth bothers to trust in the obvious cheat in the first place.

The only performance that manages to find traction is Hall’s work as Beth, creating a sort of Melanie Griffith-style squeak to maintain the character’s deceptive dim-wittedness. It’s not an especially comprehensive arc for Hall to work with, but she scores with a few beats of panic and frustration, while generating satisfactory chemistry with Willis.

“Lay the Favorite” does some traveling, advances to a point of wild threats, and makes room to address the process of claiming money from deadbeat gamblers. However, the film looks as though it was severely reedited on its way to release, finding little cohesiveness with all these interesting narrative developments. Very little of the feature is allowed room to breathe as Frears scrambles to assembles the pieces of Beth’s gambling adventure. And for a movie about horrible personal impulses and lives ruined, “Lay the Favorite” ends with a barroom dance party and comedic coda, amplifying the confusing tone of the picture. Frears, the man behind “The Queen,” “Dangerous Liasons,” and “High Fidelity,” locks into survival mode to carry on through the cinematic disorganization, resembling a man who knows he’s bet on the wrong horse.

Starring: Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson, Vince Vaughn, Laura Prepon
Director: Stephen Frears

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