If the experiences of sex industry worker, amateur boxer and sports-betting expert Beth Raymer really did happen as they do in her memoir, boy has she lived a full life already by the age of 36. Perhaps reading her book will shed some light too, on Stephen Frears’ screen adaptation of the same name, Lay the Favourite, that feels like a barrage of disjointed, far-fetched scenarios smothered in rapid-fire, betting-heavy jargon, leaving everyone a loser.
Rebecca Hall plays ex-stripper Beth who goes to Las Vegas to do something meaningful, and ends up becoming a sports-betting expert overnight when gambling guru Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis) goes with a hunch and gives her a job working the sportsbook system to their advantage. After falling for the older guy, Dink – and making an enemy of his high-maintenance and jealous wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones), spurned Beth then falls for visiting journalist (Joshua Jackson). However, she makes the mistake of leaving Vegas to work for Dink’s shady New York counterpart Rosie (Vince Vaughn), and soon lands in trouble in the illegal gambling stakes. Beth turns to Dinks to bail her out.
Impressive cast aside that’s the film’s obvious hook from the lively poster, Frears’ tale of betting and corruption in Vegas is a bizzarely perplexing and incoherent flat mix of Show Girls and Two for the Money (which played the high-stakes gambling card far better). It never satisfactorily explains why its ditzy lead (Hall) is such a betting hotshot on first sight, or why the surrounding mish-mash of characters fall so easily for her charms? Indeed, first incredulous thing first; even though every father should encourage their daughter’s choices in life, Beth’s (Corbin Bernsen) at the start seems unnaturally, overly thrilled at his daughter’s dream of becoming a Vegas cocktail waitress – as though she’s just announced she’s running for office in Nevada.
Even though the pace of the film has the Frears’ nibble filmmaking hallmark – perhaps to his detriment with this tale, the resulting insider language of bookkeeping and odds-making will wash over the majority of us to become a monotonous, numerical babble, with a couple of whoops of joy and groans of despair (from the characters). There is very little excitement for us to be party to, as there is no pause for breath or real lighter moments for us to engage in, except when displeased Tulip sashays into view, ready to pounce.
In fact Brit gals Zeta-Jones and Hall prop up this tedious tale while Willis mumbles in the corner and occasionally throws a strop to liven things up and Vaughn plays ‘Vaughn’ (again), the same East Coast, machine-gun-mouthed, wisecracking guy with absolutely no variation on smart-mouthed delivery. The only vaguely interesting factor is watching Hall as Beth in an against-type role for a change. But even this wanes and then grates along with her insipid, over-enthusiastic screen personality.
With so many TV sports screens, flashing stats, fast-talking and vacuous characters that register very little purpose on this planet to warrant the big sting at the end, Lay the Favourite (betting jargon that means sitting in front of computer screens, placing bets, playing the odds and living it up, apparently), is a surprising turn off of talent not worth betting on for a profitable night out’s big-screen entertainment.