Lay The Favourite review

Stephen Frears directs Rachel Hall, Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta Jones in a gambling comedy drama. Here’s Michael’s review of the rather erratic Lay The Favourite...

Such is the woeful state of the art of modern movie titling – full of proper names, generic terms, and gobbledegook – that it wasn’t until I’d seen the poster for Lay The Favourite a handful of times that I recognised it was a crass, awkward pun. 

About half an hour into this gambling comedy-drama flick, we are introduced to the concept of ‘laying’ the favourite, in one of those groan-worthy moments when someone on-screen mentions the film’s title, and you half expect the assembled cast to drop character and wink at the camera (see also: The Prestige, Face/Off, Top Gun). But they don’t, and the plot moves on, as if the authorial hand hadn’t just strayed into frame and given a very indulgent thumbs-up.

Instead we’re treated to more of Beth Raymer’s story, which was originally published in the form of a more informatively titled memoir, Lay the Favourite: A True Story about Playing to Win in the Gambling Underworld. Beth (a very game Rebecca Hall) abandons her go-nowhere life as an escort for the neon lights of Las Vegas, and through a series of happy coincidences, she finds herself working for a professional bookie, Dink (Bruce Willis). Even though he’s a bit old, a bit bald, and a bit erratic, Dink becomes the object of a cute little crush on Beth’s part, much to the chagrin of his grumpy old battleaxe of a wife (a scene-chewing Catherine Zeta Jones, still peckish even after Rock Of Ages). 

Of course, there’s a double entendre knocking about here somewhere, and Lay The Favourite’s title makes clear the film’s ambitions towards the sort of frothy, sexy comedy that comes with many beds, many potential partners, and one very difficult decision at its centre. Although, despite its details and dressing, from a Vegas setting to a plethora of plasma screens filled with betting details, this really isn’t a film about gambling or sex – but it’s barely about anything else, either.

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Director Stephen Frears has made a career out of traversing the line between comedy and drama, crafting accessible, straightforward films with crystal clear titles like The Queen, My Beautiful Laundrette and Mrs Henderson Presents, but his last film, the countryside romp Tamara Drewe, showed some signs that his hyphenated approach to cinema was wearing thin. With Lay The Favourite, the erosion continues. Tonally, thematically, narratively, it is all over the place – a horse without a rider.

In the process of adapting Raymer’s memoir, screenwriter DV DeVincentis (one of the John Cusack-headed trio who co-wrote both High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank), approaches the story like it’s a wild animal, wrangling its many threads, characters and developments into an absurdly trim 95 minute runtime. However, while you’d expect such concision to inspire clarity, DeVincentis seems to have retained the scope of a years-spanning novel, and splinters the plot in order to include not only Beth’s will-they-won’t-they relationship with Dink, but her courtship with New York journo Jeremy (Joshua Jackson, who, regardless of his scant number of scenes, still appears on the poster), and her mad dalliance with the even more erratic, yet younger and less bald bookie Rosie (Vince Vaughn). 

For what should be a comic trifle, it sure is a baggy mess, with depth, dimension and doubt sacrificed in favour of a comprehensive, true-to-life plot. Frears, too, crams in as much emotion and hard-shifts as he can, from dopey comedy to gambling-is-just-another-drug drama. The tone wildly varies between scenes, something best reflected in Zeta Jones’ performance, which ping-pongs from scowling soap-opera ice queen to hysterical housewife, before settling somewhere between Stepford Bitch and, most unexpectedly, Beth’s best mate.

It’s lucky that they have Bruce Willis on board, really, because he is the only member of the cast not trying their damnedest to will a film to life. He is, as reports have always suggested, merely playing himself – that is, he is performing the part of Bruce Willis, wearing a t-shirt, spouting lines about being a bookie with an overbearing wife. Even when Dink reaches the nadir of his luck, and it falls to Willis to throw what, in the script, must have been described as a tantrum, a fit of rage, or even a minor wobbly, he does so with an easy, effortless manner. After recently seeing the old lug in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, in which he was wrapped up in meticulous costume and seemed to almost break a sweat, this looks like Casual Friday.

As puzzling as this all is, the resounding question posed by Lay The Favourite concerns its lead star. What attracted Rebecca Hall, easily one of the best actors of her generation, to the role of Beth? One would hope it wasn’t the character’s journey – ditzy broads have been elevated by natural intelligence almost as many times as they have been courted by multiple men – but maybe it was the simple challenge of the thing.

At the age of 30, Hall has successfully made the jump from stage to screen, but she has yet to truly ‘break Hollywood’, whatever that means. Many of her screen credits – her superb performance as female ghost-hunter Florence Cathcart in last year’s The Awakening aside – have seemingly been given over to convincing the Stateside audience that she can affect whatever US accent is thrown at her, if the likes of Please Give, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and The Town are anything to go by.

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As her accented performances go, though, this is easily her least charming: Beth’s high-pitched, nasal drawl never gets beyond irritation, and while Hall certainly has the natural gifts to fill out the character’s confident state of undress – we first see her prancing about in her pants to hair metal, and she is rarely seen in anything more conservative than a pair of hotpants – there’s an undeniable sense that the actress is simply too good for the material.

With its overstuffed script and uncertain direction, Lay The Favourite is unlikely to change Rebecca Hall’s fortunes. Luckily, her next film is a bona fide blockbuster, an upcoming superhero sequel with a crystal-clear title: Iron Man 3. Now there’s a safe bet.

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2 out of 5