A wan comedy about gambling that takes no risks, Stephen Frears's Lay the Favorite has none of the stinging sordidness of The Grifters, his 1990 movie about chiselers and con artists. That nimble adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel endures as the only other good film besides 2006's The Queen that the prolific Frears has directed in the past 22 years. Lay the Favorite, which is based on Beth Raymer's 2010 memoir of the same name, screeches and scrambles from scene to scene with manic sitcom energy, much like the cherished pet hamster of one of its characters. The film opens with a montage of Beth (Rebecca Hall), first seen upside down, entertaining various gentlemen in their Tallahassee homes as a private stripper. When one pulls out a gun during her routine to "Unskinny Bop," she decides it’s time for a less risky career, driving with her dog to Las Vegas, where she finds work with Dink (Bruce Willis), overseer of a sports-betting franchise. Quick with numbers, she also brings Dink a run of good luck, arousing the jealousy of his wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones, drastically slimmed down). She relocates to New York, where she falls in with Troy "Rosie" Roseland (Vince Vaughn), a former associate of Dink's, eventually following him to Curaçao, which is played by a pond and a converted storage facility somewhere in Louisiana. Hall’s performance is the only truly daring element of Frears's generic picaresque: strenuously physical and sexualized, constantly teetering on the verge of being just too much. But the curious mixture of discomfort and arousal Hall's character incites isn't enough to lift the film-- or Beth-- from its perfunctory wheel-spinning.
Stephen FrearsBruce Willis, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Laura Prepon, Rebecca Hall, Joshua Jackson, Frank Grillo, John Carroll Lynch, Corbin Bernsen, Joel MurrayBeth RaymerAnthony Bregman, Randall Emmett, George Furla, D.V. DeVincentis, Paul TrijbitsWeinstein Co.