How can a movie about such an exciting topic as sports gambling be so dull? That’s the question I repeatedly found myself asking while watching Lay the Favorite, a film that makes the 2005 Al Pacino-Matthew McConaughey dud Two for the Money look like Rounders by comparison. The latest from Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things), it in no way, shape or form resembles the director’s finer efforts.

Based on the real-life memoir by Beth Raymer, the film follows Beth (Rebecca Hall, playing against type) — a supremely ditzy exotic dancer in rural Florida who dreams of becoming a glamorous cocktail waitress in Las Vegas. A private performance in a trailer park gone wrong hastens her exit from the greater Tallahassee area, and shortly after arriving in Vegas with her requisite pickup truck and hound in tow, she lands a job with professional gambler Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis).

The kind of middle-aged guy who pairs tube socks with shorts and an ugly polo, Dink is serious about his craft, going so far as to maintain a real office — Dink, Inc. — outfitted with all manner of TVs tracking the latest games and betting lines. Valued for her personable manner on the phone, way with numbers and reliabiliy when making “drops,” Beth quickly becomes a trusted component of Dink’s operation and immerses herself into her new profession. It isn’t long, however, before her skimpy wardrobe and flirtacious advances earn the wrath of Dink’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Beth soon finds herself unemployed. She then proceeds from Las Vegas to New York and from New York to Curacao, where she eventually sets up shop in an offshore operation with Vince Vaughn (underused as a bookie distracted by the party, island lifestyle).

Despite a framework of events that has the potential to lend itself to an entertaining, breezy 94 minutes, Lay the Favorite instead plods along, making its way to its underwhelming conclusion almost out of sheer obligation. Neither the writing nor directing nor acting escape the blame.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is less than pleased with the competition for her husband.

Willis, while not always appearing in the best of films, at least tends to choose interesting roles for himself. Here, he airmails his way to a paycheck, replete with the same omnipresent look of bemusement plastered to his face. While Zeta-Jones proves capable playing a vain, shrewish trophy wife, her character isn’t given much to do. Joshua Jackson makes an appearance as a straight and narrow New York journalist roped into illegal gambling, but he emotes so little, it’s feasible to suggest the android Data from “Star Trek” could have performed as ably. And while Hall deserves credit for leaving her comfort zone and playing a sleazy ditz with a chipmunk voice, it isn’t long before the novelty wears off. Her character is alternatingly irksome and unconvincing.

The movie’s final act chronicles Beth’s supposed growth as she gathers the courage to collect from a delinquent customer while steering clear of the feds. Not only does the pivotal scene consist of an underwhelming, rambling phone call, but Beth’s character has been so inconsistently sketched out by screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis throughout the picture, that her moment of outspokeness is unlikely to be received with anything more than a shrug.

Good gambling movies — Rounders, Croupier and Ocean’s 11 come to mind — all managed to give the viewer some particular insight into the realm in which their characters inhabited while also imparting a basic knowledge of the subject matter. Even Two for the Money managed that to some degree. Alas, Lay the Favorite is so focused in getting Hall’s character into her next mini-skirt that its gambling education scene consists of Willis rushing through a few lines of dialogue so quickly that only a seasoned sports bettor will make sense of it.

In many ways, Frears is to blame for this film running off the rails. While his hands-off approach worked in a film like the charming Tamara Drewe, Frears doesn’t have the acting or material behind him here, and he fails to step up and compensate for that. With its uneven tone and pacing, one also gets the sense Lay the Favorite may have suffered in the editing room as The Weinstein Company realized it had a dud on its hand and took mercy on the audience by chopping the film down to 94 minutes. It stands to reason, then, that the powers-that-be did all they could do to salvage this train wreck, dumping it on-demand in advance of what’s sure to be a limited and uneventful theatrical run.

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