Stephen Frears’ latest, Lay The Favourite, is a deceptively salacious title for a film centred within the gambling world. Adapted from the memoir of Beth Raymer, lead star Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town), is turning out to be an actor of range with a chameleon quality.
Needing something more from life than working as a private striptease dancer Beth moves to Las Vegas and is introduced to Bruce Willis’ Dink Hemowitz. Dink runs Dink Ink, a gambling business which is legal in the state of Las Vegas. With a remarkable flair for numbers laying dormant in her previous professions, Beth begins to work as one of Dink’s employees, laying sports bets over the phone and running bets to the local bookmakers. The film allows for an interesting peak at the functional working of professional sports gambling. All is well until Beth develops feelings for Dink not appreciated by his wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The action moves to New York and the Caribbean, complicating Beth’s usage of her newly acquired skill set as she blithely ignores state gambling laws and Dink’s warnings about the less than pragmatic approach Vince Vaughan’s professional gambler Rosie takes to his business.
Bruce Willis has been making some interesting and rewarding film choices of late, happily deconstructing his action status and ably showing off his more quirky acting inclinations as seen in the King of Quirk Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. As shown by Ewan McGregor in I Love You Philip Morris (2009), an A-list actor wearing white sports socks on screen pulled up to the mid-calf is a signal that they are willing to play around with their image. Willis’ Dink is a man content in his life though not immune to the highs and lows of his profession or to the jealous love and emotional rollercoaster that his is wife, Tulip.
Hall’s Beth is a progressively interesting character, never staying completely predictable. Her hot pants casualwear belies a real depth of intelligence though her growing crush on Dink and opposition to his marriage is expressed in petulant, short-sighted teenage behaviour. Hall threads the line carefully with her portrayal of Beth and manages to walk the tightrope of a woman-child finding her way in the world. Lay the Favourite develops nicely into a coming -of-age story removing a sense of real physical danger from the gambling world, replacing them with life lessons and knowing comedy.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is marvellous as Dink’s emotional volcano wife. Zeta-Jones is making a welcome return to the screen and it is only a pity that her character has such little screen time. She and Willis play a short-hand between one another expressing the layered love and long history that can come from a marriage that is not immediately obviously a happy one.
Joshua Jackson is criminally underused though the trailer would have you believe that he holds up a decent quarter of the film. He is consigned to pliable background boyfriend. He does bring his gentle charismatic screen presence but again, his role is written more as a generic loveable boyfriend role than a fully fleshed out character. Vince Vaughan plays to his usually played to strengths.
However, in this film, the writing for his character Rosie allows Vaughan to enjoy better timing and perhaps a glimpse as to what might have happened to 1996’s Swingers Trent. That 70’s Show’s Laura Prepon co-stars as Holly and is the character most rooted in the gritty, less amiable realities of life lived on the margins of Las Vegas and the American Dream. She is an interesting foil to the optimism and naivety of Beth though her character, as with Zeta-Jones’ is tantalisingly left under stated.
With a lot going Lay the Favourite still manages to be enjoyable, but somehow does not rise beyond a certain point. Frears’ film had the opportunity to become a quotable, whip smart screenplay with Willis, Zeta-Jones, Vaughan and Hall certainly being able to deliver the goods. Though to be recommended, it’s sadly, to paraphrase Trent from Swingers, so money but doesn’t even know it.
UK Release Date: 22nd June