January 23, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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The fundamental problem with LAY THE FAVORITE, Stephen Frears’ new film that premiered last night at Sundance, is that it’s made by people who seem to have little if any interest in gambling. And since this is a movie about the thrill and especially the business of gambling, that means they don’t have any interest in their own movie.

Based by screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis on Beth Raymer’s autobiographical book, the movie introduces Beth (Rebecca Hall) as a Florida “private dancer” who moves to Las Vegas to become a cocktail waitress. Instead, she stumbles into becoming a runner for gambler Dink (Bruce Willis). Beth has always had what the script portrays as an almost idiot savant knowledge for numbers, and she rises in the ranks until she’s a manager herself.
The world of modern sports and racing bookmaking operations, both in casinos and online, is a fascinating one and a huge, profitable business–it’s no coincidence that an affiliate of the Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald is now a major player in Las Vegas casinos. Lay the Favorite, though, barely suggests how that business works. It doesn’t even trust the audience to understand the difference between betting a team to win and getting points (ironically, considering the title), and has to contrive an ending so that it’s not enough that an underdog covers the spread, it has to win the game in order for there to be a happy ending. Because of that lazy disdain for its own content, and its insistence on painting Beth as an airhead throughout, the story has no center.
Even on its own terms, the film’s casting is problematic. Beth is radically different from any role Rebecca Hall has played before–Beth is essentially conceived as a Marilyn Monroe part–and while Hall is always appealing to watch, and her performance is consistent and thought-out, the effort is always evident. (Students of Stephen Frears’ work may ponder the similarities between Beth in the film and the title character Tamara Drewe in his last picture; at the very least, Frears is a man who loves his short-shorts.) Similarly, Bruce Willis is playing a lovable Damon Runyon type gambler with a heart of gold, and that’s not his strong suit as an actor. (Vince Vaughn, in a much smaller role, has far more fun as another bookie.) Joshua Jackson is wasted as Beth’s straight-arrow boyfriend who figures into the action as the movie’s story becomes increasingly silly and fictionalized, and Catherine Zeta-Jones does what she can to be amusing as Dink’s shrewish wife.
Lay the Favorite is a mildly pleasant time-waster, but mostly it’s a waste. Frears, who’s done very fine, incisive work in the past in films like The Queen, seems to have his eyes half open as he directs, and the result is that a subject matter that might have provided grist for a great social commentator like Scorsese or Soderbergh instead becomes what feels like the pilot for a USA cable series.
– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."