‘Lay the Favorite’ Review: Gambling Comedy Can’t Cash In

Director Stephen Frears and a talented cast never find their footing in Las Vegas-set "Lay the Favorite'

Anyone going to this film expecting a sex comedy or dirty doings based on the title is going to be disappointed. But so will filmgoers just looking for a compelling story and a movie that draws them in.

"Lay the Favorite" is a fitfully entertaining comic drama about a young woman who discovers her true calling, along with some scary encounters with questionable types, when she gets a job working for a professional gambler.

Despite a wealth of talent both on screen and behind the camera — Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) directed — the movie never finds a consistent tone or establishes much dramatic momentum. At its best, it's a diverting character study depicting several of Vegas' more colorful denizens.

The movie is based on a real-life memoir published in 2010 by Beth Raymer.  British-American actress Rebecca Hall plays Beth, an exotic dancer fed up with her life in Tallahassee, Fla. “I need a big change. I want stimulation, and I want good money, and a change of scenery that's interesting,” she announces. “I want to move to Las Vegas and be a cocktail waitress.”

In Vegas, she ends up working for Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis), a gruff ex-New Yorker whose bark is far worse than his bite. Dink, through his company, Dink Inc., bets big money on sports. Beth turns out to have a good head for numbers and quickly gains his confidence.  When their working relationship threatens to become more, Dink’s bombshell wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones), makes her displeasure manifest.

There's plenty more plot, which takes Beth to both New York and a Caribbean island and has her becoming involved romantically with a journalist (Joshua Jackson) and professionally with a sleazy bookie (Vince Vaughn). None of this is particularly engaging or convincing.

The gifted Hall, using an enthusiastic, little girl voice and often dressed in short shorts, works tirelessly to try to inject life into the material but she is hamstrung because the film can't seem to decide if Beth is a guileless Candide or a canny striver. Willis again shows that when he's not whacking baddies as an action hero, he has serious acting chops and range. And Zeta-Jones manages to find vulnerability and depth in a character who could easily have been a curvaceous caricature.

It's not as if "Favorite" is some huge hulking failure. It’s too small for that.  Label it a modest misfire.  Like so many hopefuls who visit the neon-drenched city where it's set, the movie's director and cast, with the best of intentions, simply gambled and lost.