Title: Lay the Favorite
Director: Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity)
If one is looking for something kind of resembling a 2010 Social Network or last year’s Moneyball type of product in 2012, they may have to settle for Lay the Favorite at this point. And that’s not necessarily a bad bet.
Rebecca Hall plays a perky small town country girl that has very little direction in life. Case-in-point: She has aspirations of leaving her house-call striptease gig in Tallahassee, Florida to become a Las Vegas cocktail server. Upon arriving in Sin City, she is introduced to Bruce Willis, a professional gambler who runs a successful bookie-operation. Taking her under-his-wing, the two form a fast bond; which perturbs his materialistic wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, even though his business is thriving with Hall’s presence. But when the jealous wife lays down the law, and Willis starts to become conflicted about the direction he is leading Hall, risks are taking by all desperate parties.
Adapted from the published memoir of Hall’s character, the script attempts to have a tone similar to those flicks mentioned in the opening sentence. But don’t get me wrong (or think I’m foolish), the execution and writing is not on the same level as Aaron Sorkin’s award worthy adapted screenplays. It’s basically the generic brand…found on the lower shelves in supermarket aisles.
The script takes time to mildly educate the audience about the semi-complex process of gambling from the bookie/broker’s side. And it needed to, since there’s plenty of numeric lingo spraying throughout this 94 minute presentation. If you can keep up with the insider speak, the next hook to lure you in is Hall’s eyes wide-open performance as the eager-to-learn apprentice of sorts. She’s a spark of life in every scene; and her chemistry with the equally engaged Willis is a pleasure to watch play out.
A new angle in the third act is injected, which ushers in Vince Vaughn and Joshua Jackson. Vaughn is doing the obvious, and in a way, going back to his roots, as a sharp-shooting mouthpiece. Problem is nothing funny has come out of his mouth in years, despite his good hustle. Jackson’s arrival is just a means to an end for the story. And to be fair, he really isn’t given a chance to do anything of note.
With a vanilla screenplay, and having it accelerate at random turns, one will still be attracted to the skin-deep characters. It actually can also play like Willis’ The Whole Nine Yards flicks, sans the sharp wit and charismatic delivery. The filmmakers kept it light and chugging along, though an extra added dose of drama – in the effort to beef this up – was needed. And therefore, would have led to a more resonating effect on the viewer.
Overall, Lay the Favorite plays its best cards (Hall and Willis) early and often. The surrounding technical elements act as a cooler (buzz-kill) a lot of the time, and ends up holding this back from becoming something substantial and stimulating. Then again, a light story such as this, equipped with all-in performances, can equate to an entertaining payout.