With an industry cranking out more product faster than ever, "middle class" cinema has all but disappeared, Between the major blockbusters and studio "independents," there used to be a range of $20 and $30m comedies and dramas to help round out a studio's release schedule, but these days such films are generally doomed to a DVD premiere, despite a cast and crew that would've warranted a theatrical release and the whole Hollywood marketing machine just five years ago. At the same time, the likely fate of these films creates a "distracted driver" mentality where all the talent involved is on autopilot, picking up a job to pay the bills while they wait for bigger things to roll.
Lay the Favorite, adapted from Beth Raymer's memoir, is one of those movies. The film was directed by Stephen Frears and adapted for the screen by D.V. DeVincentis, who previously collaborated with John Cusack on High Fidelity. The cast includes Rebecca Hall (The Town, The Prestige), Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson, Laura Prepon, Corbin Bernsen, a host of recognizable character actors in exceptionally tiny bit parts, and an uncredited Vince Vaughn (based on his screen time, he'd probably rank above Jackson). Raymer's journey from in-home stripper to self-made businesswoman in the Las Vegas bookmaking business is a potentially pleasing underdog story, and these people ought to be able to pull the project into something at least passable, yet the movie is distractingly disjointed, stumbling forward without a strong hand on the wheel.
The film's wacky forward momentum is noticeable right off the bat. Beth (Hall) quits her stripping gig and sets out for Vegas, where she meets a local girl named Holly (Prepon), who turns her onto Dink (Willis), a Vegas bookmaker who can use people who are good with numbers. Sounds standard on paper, but in less than ten minutes, we 1) see a pleasant in-home client, 2) an unpleasant in-home client, who pulls a gun on Beth, 3) meet Beth's dad (Bernsen), who 4) approves of her plan to go to Vegas, 5) watch her arrive and gawk at the lights a little, 6) check into a hotel, 7) her hunt for jobs, 8) meet Holly, 9) convince Holly to refer her to Dink, and finally 10) meet Dink. Shockingly, in those 9 minutes, in between all that information, there isn't much time to learn about Beth as a character (let alone her father or Holly). DeVincentis relies on the assumption that the audience knows that stripping isn't a dream job and some people are crazy, and therefore they won't need any more info to want Beth to go to Vegas (where, by the way, she merely hopes to become a cocktail waitress). The same goes for Beth's friendship with Holly: within the span of a single cut (covering an unidentified amount of time), Beth goes from having just met Holly to comfortable enough to hang while Holly and Holly's unidentified friend sunbathe topless, and the tone of the dialogue implies that Beth's now been looking for work for a few weeks rather than two or three hours. Seems likely that this awkwardness stems from the challenges of turning a memoir into a movie, but DeVincentis doesn't choose a strategy so much as barrel through.
Then there's Dink. Willis is surprisingly animated, in a way that recalls his performance in The Whole Nine Yards, and his eccentricities are kind of funny, but again, the tone of the direction and the script don't necessarily suggest that Dink is meant to be thought of as eccentric, and for a good half hour it's hard to get a bead on how he really feels about Beth, which makes all of their interactions awkward. DeVincentis also attempts to explain bookmaking so that the viewer can understand it, but between the editing and the technical nature of the explanation, the process remains a mystery. As a result, most of the bookmaking scenes just amount to Dink and his assistants Frankie (Frank Grillo) and Scott (Wayne Pére) yelling at each other while a sporting event plays on TV. Over time, the film gives up on going into any detail about bookmaking.
The middle of the movie drifts around in search of a central conflict. Is the story really about Beth, finding her way in life? Or maybe it's the the bitter jealousy of Dink's wife, Tulip (Zeta-Jones) toward Beth, who clearly has eyes for Dink, or even the story of Beth romancing Dink. There's a possibility it will follow the failure of Dink's business when his luck bottoms out? It might also be Beth's departure from Dink's business and defection to his loudmouth competitor, Rosie (Vaughn), who seems like a likely target for the feds. In the end, it turns out it's all of the above, but the one that's most effective is actually a token romance: Beth meets a journalist name Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), and moves to New York to be with him while working for Rosie. Their thread actually gives the film some coherence, and something to root for.
Hall is a talented actress, and her transformation into bright, effusive Beth will be very impressive to anyone who's seen her other work, but the script does her a disservice by making Beth seem stupid and flighty at first, with too many naive questions and mood swings. As the film goes on and Beth has more moments of self-doubt and struggle, the character becomes less monotonous and the performance more enjoyable. Frears, on the other hand, might as well be asleep with all the interest he shows. A couple of scenes near the end successfully deliver the formulaic excitement they're designed for, but that's not really a test of his talent as much as a test of his basic competency. With a bit more attention. Lay the Favorite could've been a surprise charmer, but the ambition of the lead character far outweighs the ambition of the filmmakers.
Much like the film itself, the artwork for Lay the Favorite puts in an underwhelming amount of effort. Square photos of the cast are laid over a black background with the Las Vegas welcome sign on it. The photos aren't even arranged nicely, with inconsistent spacing and room for all the elements. I'm not sure the tone of the movie (which is a little more "sports movie" and a little less "romance") is completely conveyed by the art, either. The disc comes in a standard non-eco Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
This 1080p 1.85:1 AVC presentation is strong overall but a little inconsistent. Fine detail and clarity are high throughout, but the black levels are all over the map. One shot in Dink's office will appear hazy and undetailed, while others will look nicely balanced, all within the same scene. Dark scenes can get a little swarmed with noise, and like the Dink office scenes, shadows will sometimes appear more brownish in some shots than black or gray. Very rarely, a color will appear oversaturated (most noticeable during an early scene where Bruce Willis meets Rebecca Hall at a casino wearing a red T-shirt).
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also mostly decent, using the chaos of Vegas and sporting events for some nice surround sound activity. James Seymour Brett's score is nicely balanced against the dialogue, and there's a lack of the cheap audio effects that often bug me when I'm watching low-budget modern movies. However, as with far too many productions these days, a disturbing amount of the dialogue here is ADR (re-recorded after the fact), and the slightly raised clarity and lack of atmosphere in these lines stands out, which is distracting. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The only extra is a reel of eleven deleted scenes (7:41, HD), which are all too brief to clear up the movie's awkward editing issues the way I had hoped.
Trailers for The Details, Bachelorette, and Butter play before the main menu. No trailer for Lay the Favorite is included.
Lay the Favorite might make for an okay rental, but it's hard not to wish this same cast and crew could've done better with the exact same material.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.