Lay the Favourite Review: Rebecca Hall Rules the Roost

Rebecca Hall gets an A-for-effort, but her blinding performance is mostly squandered in this vanilla crime farce.

rating: 2.5

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.

Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at]