Lay the Favorite (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Lay the Favorite (2012)

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There's that enthusiasmAndrew INDIFFERENCE BannerStephen Frears is a director I admire but has never touched the upper reaches of my heart.  High Fidelity and The Queen are stellar additions to anyone’s resume but they don’t have a distinctive stamp buoyed more by the leads than by Frears.  He works well with the schlubby or slightly off-center characters that populate his films and based off a quick glance of Lay the Favorite it seems that this would have been an atmosphere he could have succeeded with.

Aside from one annoying performance quirk there is no aspect of Lay the Favorite that leaves a mark.  It’s about as light an affair as they come with a plot that resolves itself with little effort and pretty faces who show up to alleviate the burden of any and all issues that the characters are presented.  There’s nothing wrong with this kind of entertainment but nothing has any weight or consequence.  If the problems were made any lighter the whole thing would cease to exist.

One of the many scenes with characters cheerily sitting around a table.

One of the many scenes with characters cheerily sitting around a table.

I felt the troubles set in right away with a clumsily handled opening scene of Beth (Rebecca Hall) apparently going for the world record for hand-stands.  She’s encouraged by a slightly better-attired man while Poison’s “Unskinny Bop” wails on in the background and she offers him a dance.  One jump cut later and she’s dancing for a gun wielding lunatic while the same song squeaks out of a barely functioning radio.  I could not tell you what the point of that first dance scene is or why we couldn’t just open on her current squalor.

Is it a fantasy of what she thought being a stripper would be like?  How well her “dog care business” (as she tells her father) started out?  A self-defense mechanism to ignore her surrounding?  Who knows, and the questions I’m asking are deeper than the ones the film intends to posit anyway.  We get a good grasp of the decision-making process that brought her to this life when she meets up with her dad and he enthusiastically endorses her decision to move to L.A. and become a cocktail waitress.  Once again, some concerning questions could be brought up, but soon we’re whisked to sunny L.A.

From this point on everything falls into place for Beth like some kind of weirdly sterilized criminal fantasy.  She becomes a professional bookie for a friendly gambler (Bruce Willis), somehow manages to avoid almost all conflict with his jealous wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and even scores a cute boyfriend in the process (Joshua Jackson).  Everything you need to know about those characters is right up there in the adjectives I used to describe them.  Poor Jackson ends up the worst because he just shows up, smiles, consoles her, and promptly disappears – much like her vanishing and reappearing dog who serves the same purpose.

It's not that she's terrible at it, but I don't want to see Zeta-Jones in a trophy wife role ever again.

It's not that she's terrible at it, but I don't want to see Zeta-Jones in a trophy wife role ever again.

An hour and a half of pleasantly shot gambling later and there is only one detail about the film I liked: Willis' cute picture of his beloved hamster he keeps on his desk.  Everything else bored or annoyed me in equal measure.  Vince Vaughn, quickly wearing out his charm, shows up as a motor-mouth bookie but streams jokes so quickly that they barely have time to register for a laugh before new information spills from his mouth.

What’s surprising is that Frears is unable to get a strong performance from anyone as it's been a high point of his previous films.  So I want to know exactly what went wrong with Rebecca Hall’s performance.  It grates, badly, to the point where I committed the writing faux pas of accenting my note “Stop twirling your hair” with exclamation points and all-caps.  Hall has been good, not great, in many films (Please Give and Vicky Christina Barcelona) but has no interesting take on this displaced valley girl.

Frears, and everyone else involved, has made great films before and will do so again.  Perhaps they should just take a page out of Willis’ playbook and equate this production to Striking Distance.

If your first thought was, “What?”, then you’re on the right path.

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Lay the Favorite - TailLay the Favorite (2012)

Directed by Stephen Frears.
Screenplay written by D.V. DeVincentis.
Starring Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Joshua Jackson.

Posted by Andrew

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