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A seriocomic true-life tale about a lower-class force of nature who discovers she’s a natural in the gambling trade, Lay the Favorite is like a loud guest at a party who’s amusing for a while until you just have to escape to the next room. Starring the ever-classy Rebecca Hall in the unlikely role of a big-mouthed “private dancer” who aspires to become a Vegas cocktail waitress but instead becomes a valued aide to a pro gambler, this broad entertainment features nice turns by Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones. But the comedy just isn’t that funny and the enterprise never finds an exact tone, with director Stephen Frears merely turning up the pace and volume as the climax approaches.
Anyone who has seen Hall before will do a double-take upon laying eyes on her as Beth Raymer, a Florida floozy in the tiniest of jean shorts whose Vegas dreams remain elusive until she encounters Dink (Willis). A sports gambler with a small, smart-talking staff, Dink takes Beth on to make bets, run errands and work the phones and soon realizes she’s a good-luck charm with a genuine gift for numbers.
No matter the craft and skill Hall brings to such an unexpected characterization — in addition to what one might suppose was Frears’ desire to pack the film with zany personalities and character actors along the lines of classic Hollywood comedies — there’s a certain intangible feeling of tourists visiting an exotic place and trying to do as the natives do. This cuts it for a while, but it seems like all of the actors are yelling through the final stretch of the movie, which starts spinning in the evident belief (also displayed in many old Hollywood films) that a climax has to be crazy and frenetic. Here it’s just exhausting and, finally, off-putting.
Cast Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Director Stephen Frears
No MPAA rating, 103 minutes
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