Lay the Favorite

I don't get it. Lay the Favorite has all of the pieces in place for a fine gambling flick (or at least a modestly entertaining one), but it's such a sloppy, tonally disastrous mess that you can't help but wonder if everyone involved made the wrong assumption that their talented collaborators would do all of the heavy lifting. I mean, just look at the credits: you've got Stephen Frears (The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen) directing, D.V. DeVincintis (High Fidelity, Grosse Point Blank) providing the screenplay and a cast that includes Bruce Willis (Unbreakable), Rebecca Hall (The Town), Catherine Zeta-Jones (The Mask of Zorro) and Vince Vaughn (Swingers). Yes, all of those people have made bad movies, but collectively it's an impressive bunch. What happened?

The story centers on Beth Raymer (Hall), an amateur porn star and stripper-for-hire who stumbles into a new job as an assistant for professional gambler Dink Heimowitz (Willis). Dink is a smart, methodical gambler who usually has a host of different bets running at once, so he needs people to help him set things up and keep things organized. Beth isn't the most knowledgable person in the world, but she's pretty good with numbers and seems like a natural fit for Bruce's organization.

Within five minutes, I was convinced that I knew what the film was up to. Hall's ditzy routine was some sort of elaborate act, and she was secretly plotting to steal Dink's fortune. Maybe I just wanted to believe that, because I couldn't believe that Frears had cast Hall - an actress who effortlessly projects relaxed intelligence in many of her other roles - as a bubbly, giggly ingenue who talks like Marilyn Monroe. It feels like such a performance, and I must admit that I grew increasingly dismayed as I realized that no, Beth really is who she says she is. She's not much of a protagonist (she spends much of her screen time batting her eyes and nodding while Willis offers speeches that begin with, "Listen, sweetheart..."), but that's hardly the extent of the film's problems.

On paper, I like the tone Lay the Favorite is going for. The majority of gambling movies are moody cautionary tales about the dangers of addiction, so it's a pleasant surprise to see that Frears is taking a stab at making a movie that consistently emphasizes the sheer pleasure of gambling. That should certainly be an achievable task (indeed, some of the best cautionary tales work as well as they do because they show us the joy that leads to addiction), but Frears and co. seem to be straining in their efforts to make everything look fun. The actors shout and funky blues music roars onto the soundtrack and flashy imagery pops across the screen, but it translates as irritating mayhem, not effulsive cheer.

The story begins in a vaguely promising place (it begins as the story of a curious newcomer learning the ropes of the gambling profession from a seasoned pro), but is quickly derailed by a series of frustrating distractions. There's a terminally dull romantic subplot featuring Joshua Jackson (Fringe) as a journalist, and an underdeveloped subplot that focuses on Dink's complicated relationship with his wife (Zeta-Jones). A subplot involving a flashy, careless gambler (Vaughn) who operates on the wrong side of the law has more potential, but Vaughn's performance is so irritating that I couldn't wait for his scenes to end.

In the end, I suppose Willis is the only person who comes through this mess relatively unscathed. This isn't a great performance (these days, you never know if he's even going to bother making an effort), but he turns in consistent, solid work as the grumpy gambler. When things start spinning out of control in the film's second half, the bewildered look on Willis' feels like the perfect summational image: why is this happening, and when will it end?

Lay the Favorite

Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 2012