Stephen Frears’ name was once an unmistakable hallmark of cinematic quality, but these days, he’s not exactly someone you’d bet your chips on in a casino. After a brief slump in the late 1990s, he bounced back with the sublime, Best Picture-nominated The Queen, but has failed to find firm footing since, turning out a triple-header of underwhelming works – Cheri, Tamara Drewe, and now, Lay the Favourite.
For those not acquainted with American gambling laws – that it is illegal in anywhere other than the state of Nevada – an odd feeling might emerge during the opening scenes of Fears’ latest offering. The focus on simplified gambling terminology will probably seem like a painfully redundant waste of time to non-American viewers, tiresome if obviously shoehorned into the script for the sake of its native audience. Frears’ task was to act as a middle-man and subtly massage this gambling-for-dummies approach – rather, he just phones it in.
Even for the standards of a 93-minute film, the acclaimed director rushes through the preliminaries with a mechanical, unfussed expedience, as sweet, hyperactive country girl Beth (Rebecca Hall) heads to Las Vegas and quickly finds success as an assistant to bookmaker Dink (Bruce Willis). Spending the film’s first half yo-yoing between Dink and Joshua Jackson’s put-upon journalist Jeremy – who gets caught up in Beth’s illegal scheme on the side, and could face jail time – the relationships in this film are, like Beth herself, jittery and unsure of themselves.
The only sure-footed thing about Lay the Favourite is the central performance. Rebecca Hall, a real gem of a British actress, is fantastically convincing as the lead, boasting an immaculate American accent, a cracking tan, and a catchy enthusiasm that nevertheless isn’t quite enough to make the film worth seeing in itself. Catherine Zeta-Jones is also a hoot in a small role as Dink’s disgruntled wife Tulip, who doesn’t much appreciate Beth’s hanging around her husband.
The problem is essentially one of stakes; we see the beats, the deals and the double-crossings going on, but the story, dramatically and emotionally, is so threadbare that it’s hard to get caught up in it at all. Aside from Beth, we don’t care whether these people succeed or not, and the contrived nature of it all – particularly a shady scheme employed by Vince Vaughn’s illegal gambling honcho Rosie – does little to help.
With a director like Frears at the helm, alongside a talented cast, this is the sort of film that should effortlessly play fast-and-loose with the typical, slick gambling pic formula. That it barely musters even the basics – Hall’s performance aside – is disappointing, resulting in a murky, only cursorily amusing effort that is best described as an undemanding viewing if not much else. We can only hope that the celebrated filmmaker’s latest slump comes to a halt as soon as possible.
It’s a frustrating film because, adapted from the real-life Beth Raymer’s book – who Hall actually bears a solid passing resemblance to – it has plenty of potential as a sexy grifter romp. Rather, it eschews some of the book’s more adult elements – such as Beth’s previous career as a sex worker – in favour of a more sterile pic focused largely on gambling, and yet it still feels oddly malnourished.
Rebecca Hall gets an A-for-effort, but her blinding performance is mostly squandered in this vanilla crime farce.
Lay the Favourite is in cinemas now.