[Review] – Lay The Favorite

14 Dec

Lay the Favorite

Title: Lay the Favorite
Year: 2012
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: D.V. DeVincentis, based on the memoir by Beth Raymer
Starring: Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson, Vince Vaughn
MPAA Rating: R, language throughout, some sexual content, brief drug use, and nudity
Runtime: 94 min
IMDb Rating: 4.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 20%
Metacritic: 38

Something’s happening to Stephen Frears, right? I mean, after he gave us The Queen, the one which one Helen Mirren an Oscar and got him a nomination, the stuff he’s been putting out just doesn’t feel like a film of his to me. I mean this is the guy who has given us, in addition to The Queen which is a very good movie, films like Dangerous Liaisons, Snapper, Dirty Pretty Things, The Grifters and, by far my favorite of his, the great High Fidelity. And yet the trio of movies he’s made since The Queen have been so ordinary and subpar that it’s really hard to grasp they’ve all come from the man that gave us such neat little gems.

2009’s Chéri had some nice performances in it but the direction from Mr. Frears made it a film that was actually lacking of any real depth or emotion and then Tamara Drewe from 2010 I actually thought was quite decent (I gave it a B) but it still didn’t feel like a Stephen Frears film to me, I thought the characters just weren’t interesting at all and the tone was all over the place. Now we get to his latest, a film called Lay the Favorite, and this may just be the worst film he’s ever done. Of course, it’s Stephen Frears so it’s not as though this film is a disaster I’ll give a failing grade to, but it’s a film I just can’t really see myself recommending at all.

The film is based on Beth Raymer‘s memoir, who leaves her job as a Florida stripper to become waitress at Vegas, you know, because obviously she wanted an upgrade in both profession and environment. There she meets this professional betting man who teams up with her to take advantage of the casinos after Beth finds out she’s surprisingly good at numbers and then the guy’s wife becomes jealous of her husband’s new lucky charm. And pretty much absolutely nothing about this works.

Which is all the more surprising because, when you consider the stuff Mr. Frears has done, especially in The Grifters, this one would seem like a lock on paper, the kind of comedy he would totally own. Even more so when you consider the cast he had assembled, which included Bruce Willis as the betting man, called Dink, and the lovely Rebecca Hall as Beth. I’ve you been reading this blog for a while you know how much I love Rebecca Hall, how I think she’s such an understated and smart actress, and yet here those talents are never tapped into, instead she’s forced to be kind of super energetic, which isn’t her strong suit at all, even though she makes the most out of it in this one.

That’s pretty much always the case, by the way, actors not really being allowed to be great by the material. Mr. Willis is nice here but he could have been better, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Dink’s wife fares the same, and then you also have Vince Vaughn as a rival betting man and Joshua Jackson as Beth’s boyfriend. These are all good actors who are just totally game for this whole thing but whose talents are just wasted with characters that not only don’t utilize their skills but who are just so thinly written that it’s kind of annoying. The fact that it was written by D.V. DeVincentis, who had previously collaborated with Mr. Frears on High Fidelity and has also written Grosse Pointe Blank, only makes this all the more baffling.

I guess what I would have wanted from this is a little bit of an edge, which is something we know Mr. Frears can provide in his comedies. Sure, this is basically a coming-of-age story for this girl who grows up in a very iffy kind of place, but it’s mostly too sweet for my taste when in reality the gambling world is a dark place. I’m not saying Mr. Frears should have gone out and made a sour drama, but if that reality of this environment had been acknowledged and played into these characters I think Lay the Favorite would have been better, or at least you would have cared about these bland characters a little bit more and these good actors would have had something to put their talents into.

So, yeah, I didn’t buy into this at all, and the worst thing I can say about it is that it’s boring precisely because of how hard it’s working to be so full of life. When you say that about a film you know you didn’t like it, when you acknowledge how hard this one was trying to inject some energy and you know you were bored because of precisely that. That stuff just doesn’t work when you don’t buy into it all, when the stakes are so low because nothing funny nor surprising happens and just want this to be done with.

If it sounds like I hated Lay the Favorite (and it probably does) it’s mostly because it’s not the film I hate as much as I hate the wasted opportunity it was. Here you have Rebecca Hall trying her darndest (you might say she’s trying too hard and being a bit irritating because of it, which may be true, but that’s only because the stuff going on around her is so dull) and Bruce Willis being totally game and you put them in this horribly light-weight spectacle that they can do nothing with. All of this coming from a man who pioneered British indie cinema in the 80’s and 90’s and who now wastes his time with these superficial ditzy comedy capers. I’ll still be eager to check out what Mr. Frears does next (and the trio of projects he was in development sound promising, at least) but he’s in a real slump right now.

Grade: C

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