Thursday, March 7, 2013

Review: Lay the Favorite

There is a grand tradition of movies associated with gambling set in rich locations like Las Vegas or New York City with seedy characters, ambiguous morality, and the threat of financial windfall and ruin – movies like Rain Man, Rounders, and The Colors of Money to name a few.  Then there is that next tier of gambling movie that appeals to the degenerate gambler in each of us, but does n’t give much of a cinematic payoff (Two for the Money, 21).  Then, of course, is that third tier of movies; the ones that would stink no regardless of the subject matter but just happen to have people making bets and money exchanging hands.  That is precisely where Lay the Favorite resides, amongst those very films that have long since been forgotten.  But since you've probably never heard of this movie, should this come as any surprise?

The reason you have never heard of this flick is because it made a whopping $21,000 in its theatrical release.  Based on the autobiographical novel by Beth Raymer, the film stars Rebecca Hall (The Town), Bruce Willis, and Catherine Zeta-Jones and follows Hall’s Beth as she ventures from Florida to Las Vegas only to find herself immersed in the world of professional book making under the tutelage of gambling guru Dink Heimowit (Bruce Willis).  When things turn sour for the protagonist, the outcome of the film hinges on her ability to take command of her own life and display true emotional maturity.

Autobiographical or not - this movie plays like a series of clichés.  The stripper backstory, the seedy underbelly of Vegas, New York bookies, it’s as if they have been taken straight from the cookie cutter for your viewing displeasure.  Almost nothing about this movie feels real from the relationships to the machinations and this is born from the creative team’s paint-by-number approach to filmmaking.  Emotions are tossed around loosely like a football at a picnic and relations turn on a dime for reasons unknown.  The dull washed-out quality that permeates this film not only ensures that you do not understand what motivates the principle characters, but also that you absolutely do not care.

This movie is Rebecca Hall’s show and unfortunately I think the role falls outside her wheelhouse.  I mostly like Hall’s work in the past – specifically in The Town and to a lesser degree in Vicky Christina Barcelona, but in my opinion, the kind of role that suits her best is the type that she played in the aforementioned The Town.  Smart, thoughtful, and down-to-earth seems like something she could pull off in her sleep.  As a stripper turned bookie who has a good heart but is sorely lacking in street smarts, her performance is uneven, unconvincing, and clunky.  This makes her character difficult to root for.

Her cohort Bruce Willis isn’t bad as career gambler Dink.  He is just not good.  It’s a different kind of turn for Willis as his character is a superstitious man riddled with the uncertainty that any professional gambler would struggle with and Willis has moments where he nails the role.  They are just not enough to offset those other times when he reverts back to his typical shtick.  While this is not a memorable performance by the actor, he certainly does not embarrass himself.  As for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Willis’ wife, she serves as the biggest cliché of all and could easily have been replaced by almost any other actress with little or no consequence.  Is this her fault?  No, but she does nothing to improve the situation.

As for the rest of the cast, Frank Grillo does little more than pump his fist and overact.  Josh Jackson spends most of the movie alternating between looking love struck and hemming and hawing, essentially reprising his role as Pacey from Dawson’s Creek.  And as for Vince Vaughn, well, it’s another sad turn for this former A-list actor who once used to be a guaranteed laugh-a-minute.  He seems to have ventured passed the line (as so many other comedians do) that separates funny and weird. 

I don’t think it should come as any surprise that I do not recommend this movie.  Now is the point in the review where I would normally go into my usual spiel about how you should avoid it at all cost but I am pretty sure that if you live your life of normalcy, this movie will never cross your path.  It made $21,000 at the box office and essentially was a direct-to-dvd movie in a market that no longer really supports that kind of title.  So yeah, if you read this review (and I have no idea why you would) then thanks for reading and here’s hoping that Vince Vaughn recaptures his comedic genius opposite Owen Wilson in The Internship.  The odds are long but one can always hope.

Standout Performance: The nod goes to Corbin Bernsen, because his character pulls the ripcord early in the plot.


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