British director Stephen Frears’ career boasts many successful films including Dangerous Liaisons (1988), High Fidelity (2000) and The Queen (2006), but in recent years his output has been disappointing. Lay the Favourite (2012), starring Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall and Catherine Zeta-Jones, shows little evidence of changing that trend. Hall plays Beth, a naive stripper with aspirations of becoming a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas. Leaving her hometown Beth travels to the gambling capital of the world where she meets Dink (Willis), a professional gambler who makes a very good living by shifting the odds of games.
There is a great deal of charm in the performances from Willis and Hall. Willis successfully captures Dink’s irrational tempers, superstition and warmth, in a role you would not typically associate him with. Hall equally demonstrates her great ability as an actor displaying a pleasant level of ditsy charm and unconventional intelligence. The supporting cast includes a tremendous return to form from Vince Vaughn as a bi-polar gambling addict with delusions of grandeur and Zeta-Jones, well cast as Dink’s jealous wife. Whilst the acting talent involved helps to make Lay the Favourite watchable, they are sadly unable to distract from a multitude of problems.
The screenplay by D.V. DeVincentis fails to capture the potentially very interesting subject of gambling, full of gaping plot holes and weak character development. Particularly annoying is Jackson’s character Jeremy, the love interest of Beth. Jeremy is a writer (a typical character-type used when screenwriters can’t think of anything better) and is vaguely drawn at best. Worse still is the fractured nature of Lay the Favourite. The last act carelessly throws in a story involving the FBI in an attempt to create a level of tension and in order to provide a conclusion.
Furthermore, exposition of both plot and characters is either absent or clumsy. One key absence is the explanation of Beth’s talent for numbers and figures, which is never properly demonstrated, yet could have been simply accomplished. The film’s rose-tinted view of gambling also proves to be problematic, portraying only the mildest of gambling problems where the outcome is almost always positive. Despite the combination of bankable actors, a talented screenwriter and a fine director, Lay the Favourite is woefully disappointing – much like gambling, everyone ends up losing.