Frivolous fun at best, archly affected tedium at worst, “Lay the Favorite” delivers a disappointing hand. A lark that feels more like a slog, this terminally upbeat ensembler centers around a bevy of eccentric Vegas bookie types and the foxy wild card who comes into their midst, resulting in a pileup of Sin City shenanigans directed on breezy-comedy autopilot by Stephen Frears. Rebecca Hall’s enjoyably bubbly lead performance lends the picture an occasional frisson of amusement, but despite a name cast, big-ticket commercial returns simply aren’t in the cards.
Adapted by D.V. Vincentis (one of 16 credited producers) from Beth Raymer’s memoir, the pic is predicated on the notion of luck as a fickle mistress in a world where every life decision counts as a major wager. Tired of eking out a living as a small-town Florida stripper, Beth (Hall) rightly decides she’s destined for greener pastures and heads to Vegas with her dog in tow and visions of a cocktail-waitress career.
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But fate gives her better odds in the form of a job with Dink (Bruce Willis), a perpetually cranked-up, fast-talking pro-gambler who specializes in sports wagers but will gladly bet on a teen beauty pageant if he’s got a good hunch. He certainly has a good one about Beth, a numbers whiz with a terrific memory. Seeing the brains beneath the bimbo, he hires her to work the phones at his off-the-Strip HQ (Dink, Inc.), where she takes to the job so well that Dink comes to see her as his good-luck charm, to the chagrin of his imperious wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Its title not only a gambling reference but a cheeky sexual reference, “Lay the Favorite” finds Dink struggling to avoid doing just that, and he winds up firing Beth on Tulip’s orders. But Beth is too irrepressible to give up either her infatuation with her ex-boss or her newfound calling, and she soon gets mixed up with Dink’s illegal New York counterpart, Rosie (Vince Vaughn), as well as a nice, normal boy, Jeremy (Joshua Jackson). The crazier the complications get, the more her luck (and Dirk’s) waxes and wanes, though the eventual outcome is hardly in doubt.
Working at his typically nimble, effervescent clip, Frears glides through this high-stakes world with a suavity that soon comes to feel a bit like boredom, the effect of which is contagious. The fascination with bookies and con artists that propelled Frears’ “The Grifters,” never registers in this comparably quaint, zippy and (with the exception of one throwaway scene) gun-free entertainment, which seems intent on keeping things moving as briskly as possible, never mind the questionable quality of the journey or the destination.
While DeVincentis’ script is full of cute quips and smart inside-baseball banter, the lack of comic modulation or inflection creates a steamroller effect that allows almost nothing to register for longer than a few seconds. Viewers unfamiliar with the ins and outs of bookkeeping and odds-making won’t get the crash-course they desire here; numbers and team names are rattled off so quickly that comprehension seems less important than atmosphere, although even that is surprisingly minimal, despite d.p. Michael McDonough’s attractive lensing of familiar Vegas locales.
Doing her best to energize the proceedings is Hall, the other Brit talent besides Frears on this American yarn. The fact that the actress has tended to play reserved, quietly sophisticated types onscreen makes her transformation into the ditzy but intelligent and big-hearted Beth all the more impressive, although the shrill, caricatured nature of the performance, for which Hall seems to have pitched her voice several octaves above normal, grates at least as much as it endears.
Both Hall and Zeta-Jones (in her first movie since 2009’s “The Rebound”) seem to have been directed to act in a more antic, mannered tenor than their male counterparts, resulting in moments when their expressions look so clenched and unnatural that it doesn’t feel like live-action anymore. Willis, by contrast, is the picture of laid-back assurance, even when Dink is throwing a tantrum and smashing TVs with his bare fists.
Tech credits are blandly pro.