Based on Beth Raymer's memoir, Lay the Favorite has a cheeky, double-meaning title that sets up the story and the irreverent tone with impressive efficiency; the reference is both to the gambling practice of betting for the favorite and to the heroine's generous sexual proclivities.
Gambling and sex are the twin elixirs of Sin City, of course, but mixed together they can create an unstable alchemy subject to the ups and downs of hot streaks and cold decks. Raymer's willingness — puppy-dog eagerness, even — to throw herself in the hands of volatile fate and fickle men makes her a great adventurer on the Strip. And Rebecca Hall, best known for playing the uptight Vicky to Scarlett Johansson's more libertine Cristina in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, uncorks a performance as bubbly as pink champagne.
So why is Lay the Favorite such a terrible drag?
Perhaps the best point of comparison is Striptease, the famous calamity starring Demi Moore as a Miami stripper who gets caught up in a custody battle and a thicket of political corruption. Adapted from a comic thriller by Carl Hiaasen, South Florida's day-glo answer to Elmore Leonard, the film missed the fizzy, beach-friendly fun of Hiaasen's work, and wound up playing the comedy and the suspense at half-speed. It couldn't keep up with its own protagonist.
Lay the Favorite feels like Striptease revisited, a listless comedy built around a vivacious protagonist. Director Stephen Frears, whose varied and distinguished filmography includes Dangerous Liaisons and High Fidelity, can't seem to decide what movie he's trying to make here. He delves into the world of high-stakes gambling, but not far enough. He dabbles in wacky farce, but lets it subside into thin romantic comedy. The film has a neither-here-nor-there quality that suggests a lack of commitment to the material — or worse, a lack of real directorial interest.
After logging some time as a private dancer in Florida, Beth (Hall) informs her father with starry eyes that she's leaving town to pursue her dream: to be a cocktail waitress at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The saddest part of her modest ambition is that it's unachievable in the short term, since the waitresses are unionized and she'd have to wait around for one of the ancient ones to retire. With no prospects, she and her dog won't be able to afford even their fleabag motel for long.
But Vegas is a city of rapidly changing fortunes, and Beth's life takes a turn for the positive when she meets Dink (Bruce Willis), a professional gambler who runs a sports-betting operation off the Strip. Beth's savant genius with numbers — and her taste for short shorts and cowboy boots — helps her thrive in the gambling world, but her obvious affection for Dink goes over poorly with his jealous wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Bounced from that job, Beth hooks up with a sleazy New York bookie (Vince Vaughn) looking to set up shop in the Caribbean, but a romance with a blander-than-bland journalist (Joshua Jackson) gives her pause.
Frears has assembled a cast flush with A-listers, but only Willis, as a streak-riding bettor in tube socks and T-shirts, makes much of an impression. The best scenes in Lay the Favorite follow Willis into the specifics of manipulating betting lines and exposing odds-makers, but even there the film seems anxious to chalk wins and losses up to lucky charms and terrible curses.
The Grifters proved Frears capable of finding the allure of shadowy characters who know all the angles, and you can imagine the potential fun in casting someone as open and guileless as Beth into such a seedy world. But stranded in the middle of comic fecklessness, she's a live wire with nothing to charge.