Review: Lay the Favorite (2012)

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Cast: Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis, Vince Vaughn
Director: Stephen Frears
Country: USA | UK
Genre: Comedy
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Lay the Favorite opened in limited release on December 7th

I had occasion just recently to see Walter, one of many TV movies that formed the earliest phase of Stephen Frear’s directorial career. Like so many such productions, it’s a film restricted by its form and financing, yet such is the calibre of the performance Frears gets from Ian McKellen as the learning disability-afflicted eponym and the intensity of the emotion he manages to summon in his harsh critique of social misunderstanding and mistreatment that it easily overcomes its limitations. Walter, above all else, has extraordinary heart, a profound and justified belief in the importance of its own themes. It’s this passion that has often come to distinguish Frears’ work, from the comedy of High Fidelity to the drama of The Queen.

Willis is nought but Willis, subscribing to the De Niro latter-career school of the single-sided grin and constant nod, erupting occasionally into heightened hysterics when DeVincentis deems it appropriate, which rarely it is.

lay3It’s a passion that’s nowhere to be found in Lay the Favorite, a sprawling, turgid obscenity scripted by D.V. DeVincentis, one of High Fidelity’s four scribes. None of that film’s easy charm is on display in this Vegas-set tale of a cocktail-waitress turned gambling prodigy, nor any of its humour as the cast plod through a slew of stale exchanges and witless situations. Rebecca Hall strives to make what she can of Beth, the film’s protagonist, but such is the shortcoming of DeVincentis’ writing—based on a memoir—that her temperamental moves from one agency to the next paint her more fickle creation than sympathetic heroine. The bulk of the blame, though, sits squarely on the shoulders of Bruce Willis’ Dink, a sorely mismanaged mentor character whose incoherent relationship with Beth casts the film in atonal oblivion, his wild mood swings ever more at the convenience of narrative progress than the legitimacies of character interaction.

Saddled with so infuriatingly inane a character, Willis is nought but Willis, subscribing to the De Niro latter-career school of the single-sided grin and constant nod, erupting occasionally into heightened hysterics when DeVincentis deems it appropriate, which rarely it is. His to-and-froing with Beth comes primarily at the command of domineering wife Tulip, played with campy excess and alarming hair by Catherine Zeta-Jones, one of the film’s few saving graces. Just about the only character irritating by intent, Tulip intermittently swoops through the story with venomous guile, shaking up proceedings just enough to make them halfway watchable.

His most significant contribution to the film is highlighting that, really, the Nevadan antics weren’t all that bad: beside Vaughn, Willis’ is a character of the utmost complexity and a performance of astonishing nuance, his storyline a wowing spectacle in comparison to the staid dreck taking place on the other side of the country.

lay4The story itself is as much a mess as the worst of the characters who enact it; the real-life Beth’s memoir might well make for an interesting read, but its filmic equivalent struggles fitfully to ever justify its own existence, flying wildly from Vegas to New York with scarcely a second spent in explanation. Vince Vaughn is Willis’ East Coast equivalent, his own enterprise operating under the radar given the illegality of gambling in his own state. His most significant contribution to the film is highlighting that, really, the Nevadan antics weren’t all that bad: beside Vaughn, Willis’ is a character of the utmost complexity and a performance of astonishing nuance, his storyline a wowing spectacle in comparison to the staid dreck taking place on the other side of the country.

Frears brings nothing more to the film than his name: not any noteworthy craft; not a sense of direction to guide this clumsy screenplay; not a firm hand to shape these performances beyond the scope of caricature; certainly not, most egregiously of all, any passion. Here is a movie without a beating heart, left in the absence of any pulse just an unseemly corpse with gangly, gangrenous appendages. Meagre as it is contrasted with the bulk of big-name modern productions, Lay the Favorite is a film blessed with the budget and technology to enable it a shiny coat to hide its stinking core. Next to the relatively penniless Walter, all faded televisual aesthetic, it couldn’t look any uglier.

[notification type=”star”]35/100 ~ AWFUL. Lay the Favorite is a movie without a beating heart, left in the absence of any pulse just an unseemly corpse with gangly, gangrenous appendages.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.