“You can’t blame Stephen Frears for trying” seems to be the mantra for “Lay the Favorite,” a mild romp through the T&A world of Las Vegas, gambling and literary adaptation. After all, “High Fidelity” is an iconic film to obsessive nerds (Need proof? See: every listicle on the Internet) and Frears is no slouch to crafting strong and/or sexy female characters (Tamara Drew, Cherí, The Queen). But what happens when he tries to mash them up and form the unholy love child of a stat geek and a bubbly idiot savant who used to be a stripper?
You get Beth Raymer (the film is based on Raymer’s memoir), played by a nearly unrecognizable Rebecca Hall, a down-on-her-luck stripper who goes from trying to set the world handstand record with a suburban client and sipping martinis to giving a freebie to another customer, who proudly shows off his big gun proclaiming “it’s only natural to be afraid of it.” And yes, the metaphorical big gun was of the literal variety. Positive that stripping could be a bad career choice, she consults her father (Corbin Bernsen, stealing a page from Walter White’s stylebook) who concurs: she should go become a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas. After landing her Daisy Dukes in a local motel, she hooks up with two strippers on a roof (hello Laura Prepon aka Donna from “That ’70s Show“) and gets involved with bookie–“but not, because that’s illegal”–Dink (Bruce Willis). In fact, Dink takes a liking to Beth since she’s got number crunching abilities that would make Raymond Babbit depressed and the ability to alphabetize the letters of any word. Quirky, spontaneous attractive girl meets older, paunchy man who believes in odds, luck and never taking a chance?
If this is starting to sound like the same old tune, there’s a good reason as Frears has teamed up here with his “High Fidelity” scribe D.V. DeVincentis. This could easily be the continuation of Rob Gordon’s love child as she coos and flirts from foot rubs to pouting when Dink tries to save his own marriage with Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a trophy wife with a heart of gold that she’d pawn but then cry because that’s about all the character we’re alotted until she’s to be loved by the audience. The gambling references come easy with “Lay the Favorite” (the titular phrase being booki-ese for “bet on the winning team”). Once the field’s presented, Dink’s arch-nemesis returns: Vince Vaughn! Or rather, Vince Vaughn playing Rosie, a bookie from New York (“where it’s illegal, unlike here in Vegas where we place bets,” Dink intones). However, Rosie immediately drops off the face of the film and the see-saw love triangle between Tulip, Beth and Dink leaves no room for anything else to happen. When Dink inevitably must choose between Beth and Tulip, the introduction of a nebbish guy (Joshua Jackson) seems perfect to end Beth’s adventures in Vegas.
It’s here that the adaptation of the memoir may not be right for DeVincentis and Frears. Beth goes back to work for Dink, endures verbal abuse because she was supposed to be his “good luck charm,” kind of quits/is fired, cashes in his chips, moves to New York with Jeremy the nebbish guy who is a journalist that can afford a SoHo apartment and…wants to go back to being a bookie! But wait! Dink doesn’t want her back in Vegas, so he blackmails her and this drives Beth back into the arms of Vince Vaughn! If you were wondering, yes, Vaughn plays the same version of himself you can find in every film since “Swingers” with even greater gusto and girth. Will working as a bookie in New York, where it is illegal, bode ill tidings for our heroine? Find out! Short answer: yeah, and it causes the inevitable reunion of friends.
The trouble it seems Frears keeps running into is how to play the favorite, as it were. Rebecca Hall embodies Betty Boop to a T, seeking excitement wherever it may come until she learns to grow up. But this shtick gets old fast, especially in the face of Zeta-Jones–literally as she has “work” done at one point and it really seems to just be an excuse to explain, uh, the work done. Willis has had his “I’m a schlub, but hey” act down since the ’80s, so there’s nothing wrong there. It’s the comedy that can’t bother to make a single laugh, aside from Jeremy shouting into a payphone, “If I’m a convicted felon, I can’t be a journalist anymore!”
By the end of the film it seems that even Frears has given up. “Lay The Favorite” places a bet but comes up empty with a comedy that won’t make you smirk, with a gaggle of characters and actors who bounce and riff with very little rhyme or reason. [D]
This is a reprint of our review from the Sundance Film Festival.