out of Five
Running time: 94
Watchable comedy drama that gets by thanks to a terrific central performance by Rebecca Hall and colourful supporting turns from the rest of the cast, though the script is a little hampered by its based-on-a-true-story constraints and the film becomes increasingly frantic and unsatisfying towards the end.
What's it all about?
Directed by Stephen Frears, Lay the Favourite is based on the memoir by Beth Raymer and stars Rebecca Hall as Beth, a kind-hearted stripper with a good head for numbers who decides to move to Vegas to pursue her dream of becoming a cocktail waitress. On the advice of her new neighbour (Laura Prepon, unrecognisable from her That 70s Show days), Beth gets a job with professional sports gambler Dink (Bruce Willis), but their close friendship quickly gets her into trouble with Dink's jealous wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta Jones).
When Dink fires Beth in order to save his marriage, she hooks up with nice guy journalist Jeremy (Joshua Jackson) and moves to New York, where she puts her gambling skills to good use with smooth talking bookmaker Rosie (Vince Vaughn) and is soon overseeing his operation in Curacao. However, when a problem develops with one of her clients (John Carroll Lynch) back in New York, Beth calls on Dink and Tulip for help.
Rebecca Hall is terrific as Beth, delivering a likeable, bubbly performance that's full of personality – she also gets to show off a hitherto unseen sexy side, courtesy of a smoking hot opening dance routine that the film never quite tops. Willis is equally good, clearly relishing the chance to do some non-movie star acting for a change, while Vaughn is a lot of fun as Rosie (he gets the film's best lines) and Catherine Zeta Jones manages to make Tulip a more layered and interesting character than you first suspect.
The film's main strength, then, is in its cast of colourful characters, coupled with some snappy dialogue and some impressive location work. There's also a decent soundtrack to boot.
That said, Joshua Jackson is rather short-changed on the character front and is rendered both bland and forgettable, meaning that there's very little chemistry between him and Hall.
However, the problem with the film is that the overall plot is rather weak, largely because it's somewhat hampered by its based-on-a-true-story constraints; this also means that the story is rather fervently pro-gambling, which leaves a slightly odd taste in the mouth. On top of that, the film gets increasingly frantic and unsatisfying towards the end, as it reunites all the characters and rushes them towards a badly thought-out conclusion which is neither exciting nor dramatic.
Lay the Favourite remains watchable thanks to the characters and a terrific central performance from Rebecca Hall, but the overall story is rather weak and you can't help wishing the script had taken a few liberties with the source material.