Lay the Favorite: Bruce Willis in a Lightweight Gambling Tale

A wan comedy about gambling that takes no risks, Stephen Frears’ Lay the Favorite has none of the stinging sordidness of his 1990 The Grifters. That nimble adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel about chiselers and con artists endures as the prolific Frears’ only good film, besides 2006’s The Queen, of the past 22 years. Lay the Favorite, based on Beth Raymer’s 2010 memoir of that name, screeches and scrambles from scene to scene with manic sitcom energy, much like the cherished pet hamster of one of its characters. The film opens with a montage of Beth (Rebecca Hall), first seen upside down, entertaining various gentlemen in their Tallahassee homes as a private stripper. When one pulls out a gun during her routine to “Unskinny Bop,” she decides it’s time for a less-risky career, and drives with her dog to Las Vegas, where she finds work with Dink (Bruce Willis), overseer of a sports-betting franchise. Quick with numbers, she also brings Dink a run of good luck, arousing the jealousy of his wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones, drastically slimmed down). She relocates to New York, where she falls in with Troy “Rosie” Roseland (Vince Vaughn), a former associate of Dink’s, eventually following him to Curaçao, which is played by a pond and a converted storage facility somewhere in Louisiana. Hall’s performance is the only truly daring element of Frears’ generic picaresque: strenuously physical and sexualized, constantly teetering on the verge of being just too much. But the curious mixture of discomfort and arousal Hall’s character incites isn’t enough to lift the film—or Beth—from its perfunctory wheel-spinning.