Lay the Favorite is a loopy comedy about sports gambling based on a memoir of the same name by Beth Raymer. For all practical purposes, it’s a direct-to-video title (it surfaced in 61 theaters, grossing all of $20,998 in December of 2012) that drops on Blu-ray and DVD March 5, 2013. Ostensibly an A-list project, it’s not terribly difficult to see why this was buried despite the serious talent assembled, which includes director Stephen Frears and star Bruce Willis. Among the supporting cast are Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, and Rebecca Hall (The Town).
Though his track record is not flawless, Stephen Frears has an impressive filmography and a pair of Academy Award nominations to his credit. Few remember the 1996 turkey Mary Reilly with any fondness, but this is the guy who directed Dangerous Liasons (1988), The Grifters (1990; the first of his Oscar nods), High Fidelity (2000), Dirty Pretty Things (2002), and The Queen (2006; the second Oscar nod). With that much variety, there was every reason to believe Frears could handle the slightly farcical comedy of Lay the Favorite.
Bruce Willis appeared in no less than six films in 2012, though most were supporting roles in films as diverse as Moonrise Kingdom, The Expendables 2, and Looper. Often thought of simply as an action star, he continues to surprise with the unpredictable nature of his chosen projects. Lay the Favorite was actually his only full-fledged starring role last year. It was one of two with the involvement of ever-increasingly active filmmaker Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (the other was Fire with Fire). Jackson’s production company Cheetah Vision partnered with Random House Films and The Weinstein Company to finance the film.
What went wrong here? Though I’ve not read Raymer’s book, apparently something got lost in the translation to the big screen because I understand the book was quite well received. Favorite gets off to an okay start, but deteriorates ultra-quickly. Beth (Hall) is a spunky but tame exotic dancer (she dances at private residences, always in lingerie) who teams with Dink (Willis), owner of a Vegas-based sports gambling facility called Dink Inc. That name is actually the funniest gag in the film. Dink recognizes Beth’s skill with numbers. If you’re not already intimately familiar with the process of taking bets on sporting events, don’t expect to learn about it here. Things get complicated when Dink’s wife, Tulip (Zeta-Jones), demands he fire his latest protégé. That’s weird, because Dink and Beth seemed to limit their relationship to that of good friends.
That’s where Rosie (Vaughn) comes in, providing the closest thing to an antagonist in Favorite. He’s a former partner of Dink’s who runs a far shadier gambling organization. Beth gets a job with him, but remains in touch with Dink, whose business has taken a hit since her ouster. She also develops a love interest with a journalist, Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), who feels justifiably uncomfortable being involved with someone who’s wrapped up in illegal gambling. It’s all one big mess of poor storytelling that makes less and less sense as it lumbers along. D.V. DeVincentis is the sole credited screenwriter of Favorite. His previous writing credits include High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank, though he had co-writers on both those films. Maybe adapting Raymer’s book was too much for him to tackle alone?
At the very least, the Blu-ray delivers a solid audio/visual presentation. Michael McDonough’s digital cinematography makes the most of the sun-drenched Las Vegas locations. The 1080p transfer effectively reproduces the desert views and bright blue skies. There’s nothing all that ear-catching in the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, but it covers the bases very well with a balanced mix that emphasizes dialogue and the score by James Seymour Brett.
Very little in the way of supplemental material accompanies Lay the Favorite. There’s a selection of deleted scenes and that’s it. After sitting through the 94-minute film, the last thing most viewers are likely to want is stuff that was deemed unworthy of the final cut. It really is that depressing. Kudos to Rebecca Hall, the only cast member who worked hard to breathe life into her character. The problem is that her efforts almost feel like overacting at times since everyone around her is sleepwalking. Hopefully Stephen Frears is back at the top of his game for the Freddie Mercury biopic he is set to direct, because Lay the Favorite was quite clearly below his formidable skill level.