Film Review – Lay the Favorite
If you would, take a few moments to reflect on Stephen Frears’s varied career as a director. From The Grifters to High Fidelity to his Oscar-nominated The Queen, Frears has proven himself time and again to be a capable and effective storyteller. He has jumped from dramas to comedies seamlessly, all the while putting his own distinctive stamp on the material. All the more mystifying, then, that he put in all his chips on Lay the Favorite, one of the most forgettable comedies of 2012.
Lay The Favorite wastes no time in introducing us to Beth (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), an erotic dancer with lofty(ish) ambitions. After a particularly creepy encounter with a client, she decides to ditch her podunk town and try to become a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas. Her friend Holly (Laura Prepon, coming in a close second for most laughably bad accent in the film…but we’ll get to that) quickly puts her in contact with Dink (Bruce Willis), a superstitious career sports-better in need of an assistant. Beth instantly wins him over after demonstrating a knack for all things numerical and is enlisted as his right-hand man. Dink’s wife Tulip (a tragically thin Catherine Zeta-Jones) is less than pleased.
The combination of Tulip’s barely-veiled jealousy of Beth and Dink’s violent tendencies when undergoing a losing streak prompts Beth to take off for New York with boyfriend Jeremy (a sorely underused Joshua Jackson), where she again finds herself under the employ of a bookie. Whereas Dink’s operation is technically legal, being based in Las Vegas, new boss Rosie (Vince Vaughn) isn’t quite as on-the-level. This, of course, leads to a series of circumstances in which Beth is in over her head and has to use her skills of bargaining to protect the welfare of her boyfriend. Or so I think? The developments that occur during the final third of this movie are so muddled and inconsequential to what’s previously been established, it’s hard to keep track of who or what you’re even rooting for.
Rebecca Hall is a talented actress and her performance here stands out if only because it’s stacked against those of her dead-eyed costars, none of whom appear to know what they’re doing there. Unfortunately, the character of Beth just isn’t all that likeable. That’s not to say a film’s protagonist is always expected to be a hero or sweetheart, but I fear that may have been Frears’s attempt here. Call me old-fashioned, but when our main character intentionally puts a wedge between a man she’s just met and his wife whom she knows next nothing about, it doesn’t strike me as a particularly sympathetic trait.
And because I hinted at it in the second paragraph, let’s talk about Vince Vaughn. More on point, let’s talk about Vince Vaughn’s voice. His strained Yiddish(ish) accent left me theorizing Frears is just off screen yelling “More Jewish! Amp it up!” Lay the Favorite is ostensibly a comedy, but the only laughs it got out of me were purely accidental.
Intended as a comic caper set in the seedy underworld of gambling, the stakes here are disappointingly low. Let’s put on our optimism hats and assume this is just a small misstep in Frears’s storied and respected oeuvre.
Final Grade: D