MRR Movie Review: Lay the Favorite

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Set in the wild, fast-paced world of sports gambling, this comedy film follows an unpredictable dreamer named Beth (Rebecca Hall) as she goes from in-home stripper in Tallahassee to gambler's assistant in Las Vegas. It's here that she finds herself working for Dink (Bruce Willis), one of the most successful gamblers in the business. She takes to the work like a natural, but makes a risky bet in allowing herself to fall for her new boss, much to the chagrin of his retired showgirl wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Unfortunately for Beth, the bet goes south, and a triangular war ensues.
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Movie Review: "Lay the Favorite"

-- Rating: R (language throughout, some sexual content, brief drug use, and nudity)
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: Dec 7, 2012
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Genre: Comedy

Movies showcasing casinos, gambling, strippers, gambling legends, and unscrupulous rivals invariably focus on the dark side of Las Vegas. Such movies are invariably brooding, moody, and slightly depressing. Fortunately, Stephen Frears has chosen to focus on the lighter side of the Sin City in "Lay the Favorite." The movie, based on a true-life book by Beth Raymer, is a comedy about the coming-of-age of the movie's female lead, with sports betting and casinos serving as the backdrop.

Beth Raymer (Rebecca Hall) is a young girl brimming with energy and hope and working as a stripper in a squalid club in her hometown in Florida. A scary experience with a gun-toting customer forces her to have second thoughts about her life. She decides, in a rather funnily directed sequence, to seek change, stimulation, good money, and a new life as a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas.

This sets the stage for the entry of Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis). Bruce plays the quintessential grouchy, cynical, and intelligent gambling legend, running a sports betting company in Las Vegas. In a relaxed and outgoing performance, Bruce steals the show whenever he shows up onscreen. Despite being stereotyped as an action-hero, Willis does a terrific job of playing a guy who does not mind flirting with his lucky charm without yielding to the temptation of cheating on his brittle and insecure trophy wife, Tulip Heimowitz (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Working for Dink, Beth realizes that she has an uncanny gift for handling numbers and figures. She finds herself calculating and analyzing the odds on numerous sporting events without breaking a sweat. The discovery of this hidden talent combined with the mentoring of her grouchy boss boosts her self-belief and her confidence in making it big in life.

The sizzling chemistry raises expectations that Beth and Dink would have a torrid affair. However, the romance ends quickly when Tulip, Dink's wife, intervenes. In a refreshing performance, Zeta-Jones plays an insecure trophy wife with élan. Her character could have quickly been reduced to the level of a shrill caricature. However, she plays the role with consummate ease, making it difficult for the audience to root for Beth despite her being love-struck by Dink.

The movie moves away from the oft-repeated stereotypes that often plague movies based in Las Vegas. Dink refuses to take his relationship with Beth beyond innocent flirting and remains loyal to his wife. Although such a twist in the plot could have caused the movie to meander and plod ahead in a directionless manner, the director's deft handling ensures the movie does not drag.

Disheartened by the rejection, Beth hooks up with Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), a New York journalist. Jeremy is the nice guy in the movie who, not surprisingly, gets dumped when Beth returns to Dink. Rebuffed once again, Beth decides to hop along to the Caribbean to work for Dink's rival, Rosie (Vince Vaughn).

Vince Vaughn plays an unscrupulous bookie who, unlike Dink, does not mind breaking the rules to get what he wants. Beth learns a few harsh lessons in the new setup and realizes that life demands a steep price for living one's dream.

Vince's entry introduces the element of danger and contributes to the movie's overall drama quotient. This ensures the movie does not come across as having a boringly positive view of the glamorous and exciting life where one is constantly surrounded by money and sleaze.

Beth is forced into a situation where she has to choose between her dreams and the safety and welfare of those who have helped her along in her journey. Her dilemma and decision-making process dominate most of the second half of the movie.

The director's unusual attempt to make a comic movie out of a girl's transformation into a woman in the gambling dens of Las Vegas works out well. The movie has an insouciant charm that manages to impress even the harshest critic.

Rebecca Hall has done a great job as a bubbly and vivacious girl who does not have any idea about how tough life can be. Willis looks relieved at not playing a shoot-first-ask-questions-later macho man in the movie, and this is evident from the energy and technical brilliance he shows onscreen. Zeta-Jones also performs commendably.

The director deserves credit for marshaling the resources at his disposal and utilizing the star-studded cast to the hilt to come up with a good show. On the whole, this entertaining comic movie has come out well due to the sincere effort put in by Frears and the movie's cast.

Stars: 2 of 5