Lay the Favorite, based on a memoir written by Beth Raymer, begins with Raymer (played by Rebecca Hall, The Town, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) moving on from her career as a stripper in a small Florida town. She packs up her belongings, including her dog, and heads to Las Vegas where she dreams of a bigger, brighter life as a cocktail waitress. Once in Las Vegas, she mixes company with Dink (Bruce Willis) a seasoned bookie with a hard-nosed, yet charming, personality. He would place a bet on anything, and he has a hunch that Raymer has more to offer than just her good looks. He offers her a job in his bookie business, and Dink quickly realizes that Raymer is a whiz with numbers and has a gifted memory.
Her skills propel her in Dink’s business, but this does not sit well with Dink’s dogmatic wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones). And yes, Raymer views Dink with infatuated eyes. Dink transcends his status as mentor and becomes an object of her bubbly affection. As complications arise in Las Vegas, Raymer must choose between Dink’s advice, her feelings for him, and her addiction to her newfound talents.
She finds herself working alongside New York bookie Rosie (Vince Vaughn). In New York City, the business of numbers is illegal, and Raymer once again finds herself jet setting into new business ventures that showcase her gift. Ultimately, Raymer must get herself out of hot water with the aid of her colorful acquaintances. In a film that could get dark or action-packed fast, Lay the Favorite maintains a glossy, rosy, upbeat image from beginning to end with minor hiccups along the way.
It makes sense on paper why Stephen Frears chose to direct this film. It also makes sense on paper why it was adapted in the first place. Raymer’s discovery of a pretty impressive talent at a time in her life when she thought she had no real skills is a great place to start a story, and Dink is an amusing character, as well as an educational window into the bookie world. The fact that this is a true story also adds a layer of intrigue.
The problem with Lay the Favorite, however, is this: it tries much too hard to be an entertaining, slick, and fast moving film, and the effect is quite bland. It is also hard to like Rebecca Hall’s portrayal of Raymer, even though the portrayal is close to the bubbly author herself. The usually reserved Hall is in overdrive, bursting with airhead energy that eventually grates and probably would have with any other actress in her place. Bruce Willis is great per usual, but his character is easier to take. Unfortunately, sympathy and empathy for these characters goes out the door as the film moves from one moment to the next without ever really delving into real emotion. By the end, the movie ends with lackluster energy that does not stand up to its opening.
Overall, Lay the Favorite could have been better with a few perceptive changes to the script and its filmed execution, but as the film that it is, it doesn’t quite impress. It may appeal to viewers looking for a light, slick flick with an attractive and accomplished cast. The Weinstein Company picked up Lay the Favorite for a probable mixed theatrical and VOD release this Fall.
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