I heard a lot of negative buzz about Lay The Favorite before I saw it, and thanks to lowered expactations, I didn't think it was as terrible as everyone claimed. I don't see the point of the film, or why acclaimed director Steven Frears decided to direct it, but I found the movie to be a pretty straightforward dramedy that didn't disappoint or excite. It's just sort of...there.
For one of the most star-studded films of Sundance 2012, I'm surprised at how tepid the final product is. Bruce Willis looked like he was really having fun with his character, a rare feat for the usually stoic actor. But Rebecca Hall, an actress I believe has the potential to reach superstar status, doesn't do herself any favors in this one: she adopts a strange high-pitched voice and the air of a teenage ditz that belies her character's amazing talent with numbers. It's a strange choice on Hall's part - one, I'm guessing, that stems from the real life woman she's portraying. (Since it's based on a true story, perhaps that gimmick alone attracted all of this talent to the project.) I also didn't care much for her character, a flighty flip-flopping woman who can't be bothered to make up her mind about much of anything. She's the main character of the film, and we're supposed to be on a journey with her, but her constant wavering makes it hard to pull for her success, since we can only assume it will be short-lived (if it happens at all).
Vince Vaughn, Joshua Jackson, Laura Prepon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Frank Grillo round out the cast, but no one is particularly memorable. This seems to be too dull a story for the quality of people involved with the production, almost as if they were all doing someone a favor by participating. There's a lot of standard stuff here in terms of the Vegas setting (the obligatory montage driving down the strip), exposition on how to gamble, extracting money from people who won't pay up, etc. Stylistically, there's not much that Frears brings to the table. It's really straightforward, with no noticable flair at all.
Lay The Favorite is the type of movie you'll see on IFC a few years from now, and it's worth seeing if you're looking to watch some interesting performances while killing some time.
Beth Raymer is a beautiful girl with a big heart who leaves her dancing job at a Florida strip club to become a Las Vegas cocktail waitress. Not exactly an ideal career choice, but her borderline-ditzy personality doesn’t give her many options. In walks Dink, a professional sports bettor who sees through her bubbly exterior and offers her a job placing wagers all over town to gain an advantage over the casinos. Her surprisingly impeccable mind for numbers soon cements her status as Dink’s good-luck charm, until his gorgeous-but-frigid wife, Tulip, starts to get jealous. Faced with no other choice but to fire Beth, Dink’s luck runs out when she heads to New York to work for a smarmy bookie, a turn of events that lands her squarely on the wrong side of the law.
Acclaimed director Stephen Frears first wowed Sundance Film Festival audiences in 1985 with his sardonic thriller The Hit, and returned in 1991 with The Grifters, which garnered several Oscar nominations. With LAY THE FAVORITE, Frears nimbly displays his penchant for interweaving comedy and drama to create a thoroughly satisfying tale of improbable friendship found in the unlikeliest of places. - A.M.