If a movie starring Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn and a few other notable names only grosses slightly more than $20,000 — BoxOfficeMojo.com assures us that’s not a typo — does it make a sound? The natural assumption is any film boasting that kind of star power must be pretty bad to be completely ignored by distributors and the movie-going public. Lay the Favorite is a disappointing, low-energy effort, but it certainly deserved to make more money than what A Good Day to Die Hard will probably earn in the time it takes you to finish reading this sentence.
The film follows sweet dim bulb Beth (Rebecca Hall), a stripper who feels unfulfilled in her life and dreams of moving to Las Vegas to become a cocktail waitress. (This movie’s title should’ve been Aim Higher.) Instead, Beth gets a job working for eccentric sports bettor Dink (Bruce Willis) and proves to be something of a gambling prodigy, much to the chagrin of Dink’s scary wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones). As Beth and Dink’s relationship becomes more complicated, she gets romantically involved with nice guy journalist Jeremy (Joshua Jackson) and professionally involved with Rosie (Vince Vaughn), a volatile rival of Dink’s.
As you can see, we’re (ironically) not dealing with incredibly high stakes here. Lay the Favorite is based on Beth Raymer’s memoir of the same name, and the film is at its best when it’s giving us an insider’s look at the increasingly mainstream world of sports betting. Unfortunately, the movie falters whenever it ventures out of Dink Inc. or the casinos. Beth’s relationship with Dink begins promisingly until it’s pushed into the obligatory romantic territory, while her inexplicably enduring bond with Jeremy happens at warp speed. Meanwhile, it’s hard to fathom why a relatively nice guy like Dink puts up with someone as monstrous as Tulip, until Tulip is suddenly not so monstrous anymore.
There’s a general shoddiness in this film — odd, rushed pacing; sloppy editing — that is shocking when you consider it was directed by two-time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen, The Grifters). Frears’ attachment at least helps explain how this project was able to attract its all-star cast.
So far, Hall (The Town, The Prestige, Frost/Nixon) has mostly been a valuable utility player in some solid ensembles. In this film, the British actress transforms herself into an American bimbo and the result is pretty unpleasant. I have enough respect for everyone involved to assume Hall was basing a big part of her grating, painful performance on the real Beth Raymer. However, Hall, Frears and screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis failed spectacularly in making the movie version of Beth believable as someone who would be good with numbers and letters, even as some sort of idiot savant. Willis, on the other hand, acquaints himself very well and is totally believable as a mid-level Vegas player with an impressive collection of dorky outfits. He’s one of the rare big-time movie/action stars who is equally at home in a smaller project like this one.
The rest of the talented cast is almost completely wasted. Zeta-Jones seems to want no part of carrying a movie these days, which is perfectly fine. What’s less fine is squandering her skills on such a joyless role; I mean, if Tulip is meant to be a ball-buster for most of the film, why not have some fun with the character? Vaughn, meanwhile, throws out a few funny lines, but is mostly asked to play up the most irritating parts of his motor-mouth screen persona. (Remember when this guy was arguably the biggest comedy star of the mid-2000s? Now he’s in this movie.) Jackson brings a pleasing amount of maturity to his underwritten role, while actors like Laura Prepon (as Beth’s unreliable friend) and Corbin Bernsen (as Beth’s equally-clueless father) only have one character trait to play with. That’s still one more than the great Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) who pops up in a couple of scenes for no apparent reason.
This is a case where the big names in front of (and behind) the camera probably wound up hurting this project. I can see why they were attracted to these quirky characters and a smaller production that allowed them to hang out in Las Vegas for a few weeks. (The on-location shots of Sin City were a highlight.) In the end, the star power proved to be a terrible match for the scrappy material and had the unfortunate side effect of making it seem like all these people were slumming. (Plus, it didn’t exactly help out at the box office.)
Lay the Favorite is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 24 mbps. The Blu-ray brings an admirably clean (digital noise is non-existent) image to what is a pretty standard contemporary presentation. A lot of Lay the Favorite takes place in a less glamorous side of Las Vegas than we’re used to seeing on film and television. So the textured image is appropriately muted and grim when compared to the brighter, more garish scenes set in and around the casinos or someone’s tacky house. There’s also a distinct difference in the color palette between scenes taking place in Vegas and New York (for the last third of the film). Not the highest degree of difficulty — especially when it comes to Vegas-set films — but the low-key presentation is true to the story.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track does a good job of immersing the audience without being completely overwhelming. With scenes set in busy casinos or Dink Inc’s frantic headquarters, I’m sure there was great temptation to go way over the top with this track. Fortunately, every channel is smartly put to use and the dialogue is always intelligible, even when it aggressively overlaps. Subs are pretty quiet throughout, but the rears are occasionally used to crank out James Seymour Brett’s generic score. There are a few bad/obvious synchronization issues (especially during a scene where Zeta-Jones seems to have switched to a different curse word via ADR), but that’s not exactly the track’s fault.
Deleted Scenes: (7:41) Presented in HD, these 11 quick-hit deleted scenes help fill in some of the film’s blanks (of which there are many), including how Beth came to be “banned” from Las Vegas. Also features a decent chunk of Prepon’s performance. Features a Play All option.
If you can’t tell the difference between Lay the Favorite and Playing for Keeps, another big name ensemble dramedy with a nearly identical poster and a title vaguely related to gambling that co-stars Catherine Zeta-Jones…you’d probably do well to skip both of them. (Playing for Keeps is the better film, but at least Lay the Favorite has the decency to actually be about gambling.)
If you wind up giving this one a look, keep your expectations low; you might enjoy it for the uneven underdog tale it was meant to be, instead of the star-studded failure it became.