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Lay the Favorite, a serio-comic true-life tale about a lower-class force of nature who discovers she’s a natural in the gambling trade, 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 also 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 the volume as the climax approaches. Star names will find this a theatrical berth but a strong box-office score would be a matter of sheer luck.
Anyone who has seen Hall before will do a double-take upon first laying eyes on her here as Beth Raymer, a low-rent 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 before long realizes she’s a good-luck charm with a genuine gift for numbers.
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The defining aspect of Lay the Favorite is that Beth has a big personality — in fact, a very big personality (as was confirmed at the Sundance premiere when the real Beth Raymer appeared onstage, looking about half Hall’s height but no less big for that). She enthuses over everything, reacting to the smallest event or comment as if it was going to be the thing that finally changes her life. She’s an enthusiast, which in many respects is a fine thing, except that she gets silly and out of hand at times, notably when it comes to Dink himself.
Dink’s glamour-puss wife, the wonderfully named Tulip (Zeta-Jones), returns to town, immediately picks up the strong vibes between Beth and her husband and behaves like a queen bitch until Dink is obliged to fire the uncomprehending Beth. At first, Tulip is presented in strictly one-dimensional terms as a haughty spoilsport, but one of the grace notes in D.V. DeVincentis’ adaptation of Raymer’s memoir is the portrait of Tulip’s marriage to Dink, who willingly admits that she is absolutely right to think Beth represents a threat. An appreciative feeling for their marriage ensues, as the couple’s mutual honesty eventually allows Tulip to become an important ally for Beth.
In the meantime, the impulsive Beth picks up a nice fellow, journalist Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), in a casino and moves with him to New York, where she is soon taken under wing by a friendly rival of Dink’s, the flamboyant Rosie (Vince Vaughn), who induces the ever-impressionable Beth to become involved in his illegal bookmaking schemes. This eventually involves her going to Curacao to oversee operations there, even as she becomes increasingly aware of how dangerously exposed she and those closest to her — Jeremy, Dink and Tulip — have become.
No matter the great 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 here of tourists visiting a strange and exotic place and trying to do as the natives do. This cuts it for a while, but it seems like all the actors are yelling through the entire 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.
Willis’ performance suffers from being part of this, as his character becomes abusive and nasty when things don’t go his way. The actor most excels in his quieter scenes with Hall and Zeta-Jones, the latter softening after a brittle beginning to show her character’s shrewd and sensitive sides. She also is laudably self-effacing, earning startled laughs by exhibiting Tulip’s terribly bruised face and bandaged head while lying in bed after a face-lift.
The overall tendency toward shrillness distracts from the characterizations and puts a damper on much of the potential comedy. A juicy supporting turn comes from Laura Prepon as a Vegas lifer who shows Beth the ropes.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production: A Likely Story-Emmett/Furla Films, Ruby Films
Cast: Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, Joshua Jackson, Laura Prepon, John Carroll Lynch, Corbin Bernsen, Frank Grillo
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter: D.V. DeVincentis, based on the memoir by Beth Raymer
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Randall Emmett, George Furla, D.V. DeVincentis, Paul Trijbits
Executive producers: Agnes Mentre, Vincent Maraval, James W. Skotchdopole, Richard Jackson, Curtis Jackson, Brandt Anderson, Brandon Grimes, Anthony Gudas, Michael Corso, Peter Hampden, James Gibb
Director of photography: Michael McDonough
Production designer: Dan Davis
Costume designer: Christopher Peterson
Editor: Mick Audsley
Music: James Seymour Brett
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