Editor’s note: Lay The Favorite hits limited release this Friday, though it doesn’t seem like a solid bet for your movie-going dollar. Find out why with the following Sundance review, originally published on January 23, 2012.
There’s one thing that becomes quite clear, quite quickly as Stephen Frears‘s Lay The Favorite begins: not everyone should do voiceover work. Rebecca Hall (who stars as Beth Raymer) sadly falls squarely into that category and her baby voice stays with her throughout the entire film, grating on already-frayed nerves. Lay The Favorite tells Beth’s baby-voiced story as she tries to figure out her purpose in life at a job that will be stimulating and make her good money (don’t we all, Beth). The best place to pursue such a dream? Las Vegas, of course!
Beth packs up her life (and dog Otis) and heads west with stars in her eyes. Ready and willing to do anything, Beth quickly makes friends with Holly (Laura Prepon) who turns her on to a job with Dink Heimowtiz (Bruce Willis) who runs a legal (at least in Vegas) gambling company (Dink Inc., of course) that bets on anything and everything, but mainly sporting events. Dink’s world is filled with exactly the type of excitement and stimulation Beth was hoping for and despite her baby talk, daddy issues (no matter what she says) and constant hair chewing, Dink takes a shine to her and agrees to bring her on.
Beth turns out to be pretty good with numbers and takes to Dink’s world quickly, proving to be a good asset to his team, and maybe even a good luck charm to Dink himself. Beth likes being good at something, but her growing crush on Dink is clearly what has her excited to go to work each day. However, Dink is married to Tulip (played like a Real Housewife of Las Vegas by an almost unrecognizable Catherine Zeta-Jones), a fact that does not seem to faze Beth.
When Beth’s presence starts to affect Dink’s marriage, he feels he has no choice but to fire her. Beth spins out after losing a job she was finally good at (and a man she thought she was in love with) and decides to move to New York to make it on her own. Even though she tries to make an honest living for a while (three weeks), she soon wants back in the game, but after finding out Dink is keeping her from working for him or anyone else in Vegas, she turns to another bookie, Rosie (played by Vince Vaughn at his unhinged best) and soon her naivete gets the best of her and she finds herself in a seemingly serious situation.
While all those twists and turns might sound like unnecessary plot movements, Lay The Favorite really suffers because of the inherent disconnect between all those different pieces. Even the game performances by the film’s star-studded cast can’t make heads or tails of the film, its focus, and its very tone. It’s a strange, shiftless film that flits between genres with little bridging its large, essentially insurmountable gaps.
Shockingly enough, Beth eventually grows up and takes charge of her life and her decisions (albeit while threatening one of her customers to pay off his illegal gambling debt to her), a tidy end that comes complete with Dink and Tulip looking on like proud parents (an odd turn considering Beth was trying to steal Tulip’s husband only a few months before). While the film wraps things up nicely in the end, its disjointed tone frequently make it feel like many different films sewn together to be one, and not a good one at that.
The Upside: Zeta-Jones turns in the most layered (and realistic) performance of the film as a woman who, at first, seems to be just a shallow gold-digger, who turns out to be so in love with her husband she will do anything for him (even clip his toe nails).
The Downside: Lay The Favorite never seems to quite know what it wants to be, shifting from a slightly goofy film about gambling to a high stakes drama to friends-who-become-family comedy.
On the Side: Joshua Jackson as the sort-of boyfriend? Pacey Witter, you’re better than this.