Rebecca Hall is an ex-stripper with a kind soul and a good head for figures in this sprightly but disjointed American comedy from veteran British filmmaker Stephen Frears (‘Tamara Drewe’). Working from a script by DV DeVincentis, who also wrote his 2000 film ‘High Fidelity’, Frears tells the story of Beth Raymer (Hall), a dancer-turned-gambler whose memoir inspires the film.
Sunny and full of optimism, Beth decamps from small-town Alabama to the bright lights of Las Vegas in search of her dream job – being a cocktail waitress. Once there, she falls in with a nervy gambling kingpin, Dink (Bruce Willis), who gives her a job in which she starts to shine; he backs off when confronted with the jealousy of his tight-faced wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones). So Beth tries to make her own way in the world of bets, moving to New York to be with a sweet guy, Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), she meets in Vegas and to work for a slick but chaotic upstart bookmaker, Rosie (Vince Vaughn).
Frears’s strongest hand is a set of colourful characters played with verve: Hall is all heart and smiles as Beth, always keeping on the right side of a tart-with-a-brain act; Willis downplays the more caricatured tics (limping, knee-high socks, repeated scratching) of awkward but successful Dink; and Zeta-Jones lets her glare do the talking (in one scene her character is all puffed cheeks and bruises after a new round of plastic surgery). But DeVincentis’s script looks to achieve far too much in a short space of time and the early bonhomie and sitcom tone of the goings-on in Dink’s office are soon replaced with frenzied plotting and a rapid chain of events that sink the film’s half-earned warmth and charm. The going is good, but ‘Lay the Favourite’ pulls up long before the finish.