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Lay the Favorite | reviews, news & interviews

Lay the Favorite

Lay the Favorite

Rebecca Hall is a cheerful revelation but this gambling comedy finds Stephen Frears losing his chips

Bet fair: Rebecca Hall and Bruce Willis in 'Lay the Favorite'

Stephen Frears is one of a trio of great old British lags who’ve been knocking out films for the past four decades. But while you know where you are with Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, with their deadly serious careers as auteurs, Frears is a more elusive figure. A directorial pragmatist, he has always unfussily followed the scent of a good story.

And it’s a feature of his career that he often comes back for a second sniff, triumphantly with The Queen, which revisited the Tony Blair he and Michael Sheen first put on screen in The Deal. But sometimes the scent runs dry. After My Beautiful Laundrette his next collaboration with Hanif Kureishi was the grimly unsatisfactory Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. After the sumptuous Dangerous Liaisons, his return to the codified world of French manners was the misbegotten bon-bon Chéri, with Frears supplying an audibly bored voiceover. So the odds look stacked the wrong way with Lay the Favorite, which finds the director popping in on the world of sleazy low-life chancers he last frequented in The Grifters.

Hall wiggles her rump and giggles with winning conviction

The difference is that, where formerly Frears told of poker-faced loners in dimly lit interiors, this time around we’re in the garish wastelands of Nevada and Florida. And in place of Annette Bening’s shimmering turn as a cold-eyed femme fatale, Frears’ heroine is a ditzy private dancer (Rebecca Hall) who aims no higher than waiting tables in Vegas. The story is based on the memoir of Beth Raymer, who, it says on Wiki, wrote of “her experiences in the sex industry, amateur boxing and sports-betting”. The first two have more or less vanished in favour of a comic narrative about an innocent who stumbles into the wicked world of gambling. D.V. DeVincentis (who also adapted Nick Hornby's High Fidelity) has the tough gig of cranking something shapeless into a workable three-act structure.

The story such as it is goes like this. No sooner has Beth turned up in Vegas than she’s offered a job working for a gambler called Dink (Bruce Willis). Dink like many gamblers is given to both ruthless calculation and irrational superstition. Beth appeals to the latter, as she seems to bring him luck. It helps that she's surprisingly good at numbers, and an enthusiast with a Pollyannaish blindness to the downside of pretty much anything. Or she is until she gets fired. The problem is she falls in love with Dink, and Dink’s wife, an alchoholic harpy played without vanity by Catherine Zeta-Jones, is no fan of lanky spring chickens in hotpants. He then asks her back when his luck doesn’t return. Then fires her again when she isn’t up to the job of turning round his fortunes. So Beth drifts off to New York to hook up with a hotshot young journalist (Joshua Jackson) who consoled after being dumped and gets back in the game, only now she's in a state where it's a felony to gamble.

It’s not that Lay the Favorite isn’t pleasant enough company with its light dusting of one-liners (you can catch most of them in the trailer). And at 90 minutes it knows not to outstay its welcome. The best thing about it is certainly Hall’s dazzling transformation into a girly goofball. Her performances on screen as much as on stage have mostly been characterised by a watchful intelligence and, oddly for a good-looking woman, a weird sort of sexlessness. Here she throws her voice up by a good octave, wiggles her rump and giggles with winning conviction. But nothing else in a wafer-thin plot really sings, and for all the scenes of sleazy men shouting at screens or into phones, Frears is unable to convey anything but a languorous enthusiasm for the addictive business of gambling. “God that was so exciting!” squeals Beth after her first taste of beating the odds. Well, not really. And come the finale, nails remain resolutely unbitten too.

In a film that makes no bones about wanting everything to be for the best, even Zeta-Jones’ sour-faced cougar turns friendly pussycat as the shit threatens to collide with the fan, while Vince Vaughn as a no-good rival to Willis’s paternalistic Dink is not quite the baddie the film needs him to be. Indeed none of the relationships really cohere or last the course. Frears has rolled the dice and lost his chips on this one. Maybe he’ll have better luck next time.

Watch the trailer to Lay the Favorite

Follow @JasperRees on Twitter

Frears is unable to convey anything but a languorous enthusiasm for the addictive nature of gambling

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Average: 2 (1 vote)

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