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April 10, 2013

Movie Review: Lay the Favorite (2013)

Review by John Beutler

At some point, you have to stop believing in, and trusting in luck... and believe in, and trust in one's self' seems to be the message to take away, with this somewhat enjoyably quaint and funny, but ultimately forgettable, all-star character play. Rebecca Hall is adorable and charming as a naive, ditsy, albeit keenly numbers-savvy young woman, Beth, looking for something more, career-wise, than tending a door-to-door stripper gig. Abruptly trekking from Florida, to Las Vegas, Nevada, resignedly bound for cocktail waitressing, she instead quickly finds a niche in a motley crew, who are carving out a sweet bundle, engaging in legal sports gambling... a team led by a coolly savvy and seasoned Dink (Bruce Willis), who laid-back shakily runs the show, and sees the newly employed lass as a sort of untried protegee and unfailing good luck charm, with her keenly adept, albeit scatterbrained ability with juggling numbers.

Developing a crush on her aged benefactor, Beth finds adversary in Dink's estranged wife (Catherine Zeta Jones), who becomes jealous of Beth's presence... a potential 'threat' to her meal ticket, despite later proving to still have sincere feelings for her beau. When juxstapositioned events require Dink to reluctantly end Beth's employment with the company, in an effort to salvage and protect his marriage, it ultimately appears to prove detrimental to the 'business', as Dink begins to think that giving Beth the boot has also scrubbed his run of good luck... both in business, and his rekindled relationship with his wife. A somber and shattered Beth, clearly feeling rejected, treks back cross-country, to a New York-based opportunity, where Dink's East coast competition (...a picture of comical arrogance, as portrayed by Vince Vaughn) is setting up a competing, albeit illegal sports gambling gig. Marked of these recent and potentially detrimental developments, Dink attempts to get Beth back, warning her of the unlawful endeavor, she is getting involved in.

All of these events culminate in a minor-league set-up, which threatens both East and West coast 'businesses'... and it seems that only Beth can step in, and save the day. Will she?? As interesting as this premise seems to be, the story itself seems to go all over the place... nearly as scatterbrained as Beth's mental meanderings... bouncing back and forth, and then back again, like an insect trying to waywardly pollinate flowers, leaving little opportunity for the viewer to really latch on to, and relate to any of the characters... with the exception of perhaps Beth, whom the story revolves around (...reportedly based upon a true story). Trouble is, you WANT to know more about these people, and you WANT to know more about the intricities of sports gambling, but are only given so much, on both counts... merely to taste, not to satisfy. That said, I really have to hand it to Bruce Willis' performance here; after all these years, he still has the ability to handle himself with high-octane action films, without looking embarrassing, and yet in the case of this film, he fervently manages to tone things down considerably, playing a character more seasoned and savvy to his actual age.

Regrettably, some of the other star turns here, are happenstance, though somewhat notable; Catherine Zeta Jones is almost unrecognizable as Dink's estranged wife, and despite her character being so minimized, she actually sports some of the funnier moments in the film (...look for a very amusing moment, which might remind folks of 'Frankenstein's Daughter'... LOL). Vince Vaughn, as Dink's East coast adversary is wasted here, and very restrained, as compared to many of his other film performances. In the end, although a quaint little time waster, this one's ultimately quite negligible... a surprising revelation, coming from director Stephen Frears... famed for more formidable and intriguing films, like 2000's "High Fidelity" and 1990's "The Grifters". Worth a look, but don't expect to walk away with anything more than a shoulder shrug.

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