The true story of gambling bookie-turned-journo Beth Raymer is handled clumsily by Stephen Frears.
Stephen Frears and the biopic have typically made good bedfellows. The Queen and Mrs Henderson Presents were both delivered with the well-crafted reverence and joyous quirk they respectively deserved, which would seem to make Lay the Favourite a sure bet, given it draws directly from the memoirs of gambling bookie-turned-journalist Beth Raymer, and reunites Frears with High Fidelity screenwriter, DV DeVincentis.
And yet, no one could really say Frears has made a film about gambling or comedy, given the finished product shows little interest in being either.
Rebecca Hall, barely recognisable from her subdued performance in The Town, makes a spritely turn as Beth, an exotic dancer who throws in the towel to seek a new life as a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas. When that doesn’t work out she stumbles into a job as the unlikely aide of heavyweight bookie Dink (Willis), who soon promotes her to the big time (she’s "good with numbers", we’re told) and the two begin a professional relationship of sorts.
In fact, if this wasn’t based on Raymer’s real story, it would be easy to dismiss it as contrived nonsense entirely. That Frears totally soft boils things, spreading his bets so thinly across so many genres, only serves to diminish focus and believability further.
Perhaps the only stolen glimpse of any three-dimensionality is in Dink’s turbulent wife Tulip (Zeta-Jones), whose growing concerns about Beth and Dink’s relationship force Beth to escape to the arms of New York journalist Jeremy and begin working for Dink’s illegal New York counterpart, Rosie (Vince Vaughn).
It’s in being powered through this endless series of superficial decisions that makes it hard for us to suspend any sense of disbelief, let alone invest ourselves in either Beth or Dink’s situations. No matter how real this world is, Frears does little to mine any depth or drama from those who inhabit it, leaving an ensemble cast that feels unforgivably wasted.
Or maybe it’s because the source material, while interesting, is never extraordinary. This never feels like a story that needed to be told. And where DeVencitis’s screenplay might have indulged us into the high-octane world of sports betting, it opts for oddball goofiness, spending most of its time flittering around, tone-deaf.
Unless, of course, Frears composed this as an intentional metaphor for the shallow dispensability of Vegas. In which case he’s succeeded on all fronts.
The book charting Beth Raymer’s real life seemed ripe for adaptation. All in.
An endless cycle of superficial characters making superficial decisions, coupled with Frears’ inability to focus tone or style, leave us exhausted and distanced.
An attractive proposition let down by a cack hand.