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Lay the Favorite

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'Lay the Favorite': Snake eyes
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies

With its cast and pedigree, you'd expect "Lay the Favorite," a betting-and-bad-decisions tale adapted from the 2010 memoirs of Beth Raymer, to seem like a safe bet to make with your moviegoing dollar. Then again, as anyone who's ever strutted through the doors of a casino knows, sure things rarely are. Raymer went to Vegas with dreams of improving her life and went through the neon-framed looking glass of big-money gambling, both legal and illegal, in Vegas, New York and exotic, less-regulated locations abroad and came out the other side almost unscathed. Now brought to the big screen by director Stephen Frears and screenwriter D. V. DeVincentis (who previously collaborated on "High Fidelity"), Raymer is incarnated as Rebecca Hall's Beth, who leaves behind low-rent out-call "exotic dancing" to go to Vegas with dreams of improving herself by, perhaps, becoming a cocktail waitress ...

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The true life and times that went into the memoir make the real Raymer sound fascinating; her on-screen incarnation is not. Beth is portrayed by Hall with the kind of squeaky, quivering, little-girl voice that makes you imagine an 8-year-old inside her, like the commanding officer of a giant Hall-shaped robot, speaking into a megaphone to issue forth words while furiously working levers to make limbs move. Beth can't get a gig as a waitress -- "union town," as one old-timer explains -- and so she finds herself hired as a runner, phone person and general right-hand woman by Dink (Bruce Willis), a professional gambler with a channel-flipping attention span and a far better grasp on the odds than his feelings.

Dink is married to Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an excessively modified but loving woman. When Beth and Dink start hanging out more than professionally -- or, rather, less and less professionally -- Beth gets exiled from Dink's sphere of merry oddsmakers. She leaves Vegas, eventually moving on to New York, where gambling is illegal, and then to the Dominican Republic, where very few things are illegal, to run the betting empire of the volatile, flashy Rosie (Vince Vaughn). Difficulties with the law and love (in the form of Joshua Jackson's dreamy reporter) ensue.

The problem is that anything like a plot at first gets covered and smothered in long digressions -- about the mechanics of betting, of probability, of the odds and the way they can shift -- that don't entertain or inform or even work. All of the gambling "action" in Dink or Rosie's offices devolves into people either shouting numbers into phones or at each other. What could be moments of dramatic tension or that advance the plot are instead headache-inducing symphonies of cacophony. Of the leads, only Willis gives anything resembling a coherent performance as Dink's carved-in-stone neuroses and obsessions and ultimatums soften, but it's not enough to redeem the film.

The fault here may lie not entirely with Hall, but rather in how DeVincentis adapted this material and how Frears directs it. There are a few moments that require Beth to be both brilliant (she can take any word apart and recite the letters in it in alphabetical order lickety-split) and in the next second so frazzled and foolish that she can't recall simple directions. Worse, Frears' vision of gambling -- as both big-money big-buzz business/fun and degenerate obsession -- bounces between Damon Runyon's "Guys and Dolls" and Dostoyevsky's "The Gambler," from fun high jinks to scary high-stakes debts. It's a blueprint to build an uneven tone, and the film itself can't endure the stress as it whips between those two opposing poles. Incoherent, loud and saddled with a lead character far less smart and interesting than the woman whose writings and life we're supposedly watching, "Lay the Favorite" simply lays down dead.

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James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.

 

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