I have some theories regarding Lay the Favorite. I believe screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis was partly paying attention to the script, partly paying attention to ESPN, and mostly paying attention to soft-core porn. The talented actress Rebecca Hall must have had her brain switched with adult film star Katie Morgan. And the director Stephen Frears can’t be the same one who directed High Fidelity, The Queen, and The Grifters. There must be a different director who is also named Stephen Frears, but who is also far less talented. These theories are the only way to explain why Lay the Favorite is so freaking terrible.
After some uncomfortable jobs as an out-call exotic dancer, complete and utter bimbo Beth Raymer (Hall) decides to follow her big dream of becoming a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas. When she discovers that’s a union-only job, Beth’s stripper friend Holly (Laura Prepon sporting an atrocious southern accent) hooks up the wayward airhead with Dink (Bruce Willis), a sports gambler who bets on every event in order to change the line and use that to make money somehow. Beth discovers she has a knack for sports betting because she’s “good with numbers”, but she also develops an attraction to Dink, which puts her in the cross-hairs of Dink’s wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The story then turns into an endless cycle of Beth and Dink coming together and pulling apart for sloppy, simplistic motivations.
The script never goes for any drama or conflict any deeper than a superficial make-up, break-up relationship between the lead characters. Dink fires Beth, he hires Beth back, Beth quits, Dink wants her back, but there’s absolutely no interest on Dink’s part so the relationship is devoid of sexual tension. He never once shows any sign of straying from Tulip, especially after the film rushes into a forced melodramatic scene where Tulip pleads with Dink to stay faithful and to fire Beth. That’s how you build trusting relationships: make your husband remove temptation from his path. The good news is that there are no other attractive women in Las Vegas.
Frears doesn’t seem to find much drama anywhere and crushes any potential excitement with overbearing ennui. Dink’s belabored attempt to explain sports gambling to Beth (and to the audience) doesn’t make the business any clearer, but it doesn’t need to. Energetic direction and skillful editing could recreate the rush of gambling and maybe find some way to demonstrate how Dink’s operation works. Instead, almost all of the sports “drama” comes at Dink yelling at a TV because he needs a bet to come through. It doesn’t help that Bruce Willis yelling carries absolutely no impact. His rage isn’t scary or funny; it’s just noise. The emotionless rage is partly due to miscasting Willis and partly due to Frears’ forgetting that a scene’s dramatic impact can change depending on where you place the camera. Lay the Favorite is shot with all the enthusiasm and creativity of a Denny’s commercial.
But the worst element of the movie is Hall. She is a strong actress who has turned in memorable performances in The Town, Vicky Christina Barcelona, and The Awakening. I felt embarrassed for her when I watched Lay the Favorite. Part of the problem is how the character is written. Beth is a fickle ditz who won’t stop whining, can’t solve her own problems, and when she says she’s “good with numbers”, it’s believable only if “good with numbers” means “can count to ten.” However, Hall has to shoulder the blame for playing up every unlikable aspect of the character. She dons a clearly-fake cupie doll voice, constantly chews her hair regardless of what the character is feeling, and acts the same at the end of the movie as she did at the beginning. In terms of the story, Beth never grows as a person, but a thoughtful performance from Hall could have at least convinced us that the character develops over the course of the film. I assume the thinking was that Beth’s childish demeanor would bring energy and joy to the picture, but all it does is create aggravation and sadness.
There’s no reason Lay the Favorite should be as terrible as it is when you stop to consider the talent involved. Nothing works in the movie. The pacing is a mess, the script is idiotic, the performances range from lackadaisical to campy, and Frears doesn’t seem to care at all. The talent and premise of Lay the Favorite should be a winner, but it’s a bet that leaves the audience broke and angry. So I guess in that way, it does re-create the Las Vegas experience.
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