Judge Patrick Bromley put it all on 26 Black and lost.
In a town full of odds, she turned the tables.
What movie were they trying to make with Lay the Favorite?
The 2012 gambling comedy, directed by Stephen Frears and written by D.V. DeVincentis (a collaborator of John Cusack who co-wrote Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity), is as confused a movie as I can ever recall. It has a great cast, a solid creative team behind it, and moments that click, but it's a wholly unsatisfying 90 minutes. It should be so much better.
The lovely and talented Rebecca Hall (Please Give) stars as Beth Raymer, a daffy stripper who relocates to Las Vegas and gets a job working for a bookie named Dink (Bruce Willis, Cop Out). She takes to bookmaking immediately, becoming something of a good luck charm for Dink and confusing their relationship for a romantic one—though all that goes out the window when Dink's high maintenance wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones, The Rebound), re-enters the picture. Beth bounces from city to city, falling in and out of Dink's good graces and eventually hooking up with a despicable bookie named Rosie (Vince Vaughn, Couples Retreat) and a nice guy journalist named Jeremy (Joshua Jackson, Fringe).
Apparently, Lay the Favorite is based on a real-life memoir by Beth Raymer, published in 2010. This might actually go a long way towards explaining why the movie doesn't work. It's a shapeless mess of disconnected events—the kind of "this happened, the this happened" structure that only comes from a person recounting his or her own biography. Not having read Raymer's book, the fault doesn't lie with her; in adapting the memoir, screenwriter DeVincentis needed to figure out how to make the story dramatically compelling. Instead, it's just a series of events included because they are "what happened." Beth and Dink grow close. Dink fires Beth. Dink takes Beth back. Dink fires Beth again. Tulip doesn't like Beth, then she does. Dink's relationship with Tulip doesn't make sense. It needs to, because it informs a lot of the plot. Beth relocates. She meets someone new. She moves back. The movie is maddening in its meandering. It's a story about big risks and big payoffs. The rush. Why, then, is there so suspense or excitement anywhere to be found?
With its colorful characters and potentially seedy subject matter, much of Lay the Favorite plays like an Elmore Leonard novel, minus any of the interesting parts. It could have been about the process of bookmaking, which would have at least been informative. It's not really interested in that. It could have been about the psychology of gambling, and what drives this group of people to make it their life's work. It's not really interested in that. It could have been about a lost girl, living on the fringes, who discovers a true talent for something she didn't know she had. The movie tries to be that thing, but never provides a sense of what that talent is (apparently, she's just lucky?) or why it makes a difference. There are so many better directions the finished film could have taken, but, ironically, it seems afraid to double down and commit to a decision. Maybe it was tinkered with in the editing; it is, after all, a Weinstein Company release, and this wouldn't be the first time they bled a movie of its personality to try and make it more "palatable" to a wide audience. What's left is soggy white bread—non-descript, safe, without color or texture.
It doesn't help that many of the major players feel miscast. Zeta-Jones and Vaughn are fine playing characters that are totally within their respective wheelhouses; she is petulant and entitled, he is loudmouthed and obnoxious (his shtick, in particular, got old about 10 years ago). It's uncertain whether or not Bruce Willis is bored and phoning it in (as he has a habit of doing these days) or if he just doesn't have a clear character to play. Rebecca Hall is the biggest disappointment. Since really becoming a star in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona (a movie in which she is fantastic), Hall has made a habit of being good and interesting in everything in which she appears. From Frost/Nixon and The Town to The Awakening, she hasn't given a bad performance. Even her work in Lay the Favorite isn't quite bad, just tone-deaf. Miscalculated. It belongs in a different movie. At the same time, her performance is the only thing worth watching in the movie—it's a spark of life, even if it doesn't quite fit. She at least swings and misses. Everyone else just bunts.
Anchor Bay's Lay the Favorite (Blu-ray) boasts a fantastic 1.85:1/1080 HD widescreen transfer, with excellent fine detail and a bright clean look. The photography is soaked in Vegas sun and emphasizes a natural look over stylization, and the transfer handles those intentions well. Skin tones are very natural and there are no visible artifacts or digital tinkering. The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack handles the dialogue well enough, but there's not much more here to really put all the surround channels to work. It's a capable audio presentation that, like the movie itself, is totally unassuming. The only bonus feature is a collection of deleted scenes. They're worth a look; while they would have thrown off the pacing of the movie (which already isn't great), they offer some more insight into the Laura Prepon character and suggest that a lot of her performance hit the cutting room floor.
Lay the Favorite is a frustrating waste of talent across the board. The director, screenwriter, and the cast have all done much better work. As a result, what we get is a movie without personality and unsure what it wants to say.
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