Any cinematic adaptation of a true story, no matter how deft, still contains an element of “you had to be there.” That’s no different for Lay the Favorite, the comic recollection of a former exotic dancer’s triumphs in the world of sports betting. High Fidelity collaborators Stephen Frears (The Queen) and writer D.V. DeVincentis reunite to adapt the memoir of Beth Raymer, a bubbly, baby-voiced naif played by the charming Cambridge-educated actress Rebecca Hall. It’s a classic rags-to-riches tale that refracts the neon madness of Las Vegas through the lens of its considerably less glamorous sportsbooks and off-the-Strip betting parlors, trying to turn the methodical, mathematical grind of high-stakes sports betting into riveting drama with mixed results.
Despite lukewarm Sundance buzz and a token theatrical release, Lay the Favorite is much like its protagonist: there’s more to it than meets the eye. Beth’s rise from aspiring cocktail waitress to globe-trotting gambling prodigy has a charming Horatio Alger-like quality, if Alger’s women embraced the stopping power of Daisy Dukes and a spangly crop top. She also acquires a kindly benefactor in Dink (a quietly effective Bruce Willis), a professional gambler whose rapport with the young woman leads to the film’s most genuine and satisfying relationship. He’s surprised to learn that Beth’s flighty facade masks an aptitude for logic and number games. She quickly morphs into Dink’s top confidant, earning the respect of her primarily male colleagues – and the jealous wrath of Dink’s wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
While the film’s narrative through-line is simple enough, Frears and DeVincentis struggle to find a consistent tone – a failing established in the prologue, one of Beth’s wacky stripping adventures that segues into her escaping the creepy trailer of a gun-toting hillbilly. It’s also not entirely clear if the movie’s affinity for Beth extends beyond her status as a male fantasy object: a fun, hot party girl who watches sports all day for a living. Lay the Favorite‘s best jokes usually come at the expense of its heroine’s intellect (“Look into my eyes through the phone!” she barks at a welshing bettor), and the film rarely attributes her success to her own shrewdness and skill as opposed to the men orbiting around her.
Lay the Favorite doesn’t find a comfortable groove until about halfway through the story, when a shady New York bookie (Vince Vaughn) lures Beth away from the honest and forthright Dink. It’s not an elegant twist – Beth’s heart of gold precludes any real feeling of suspense – but the motor-mouthed Vaughn contributes a sorely needed burst of energy to a film that’s often in danger of succumbing to monotony. Still, Fears and DeVincentis’ willingness to take refuge in comforting serio-comic formulas ensures that Lay the Favorite mirrors the fortunes of the average small-time gambler: it only hits enough to stay in the black, reliably solid but never spectacular.
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