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Sundance Review: Don’t put much money down on ‘Lay the Favorite’

January 31st, 2012 Posted in Opinion

By Natasha Bodily

PARK CITY—The big-name cast of Sundance’s Lay the Favorite takes a gamble with this true-story journey around the world from Tallahassee to Las Vegas, New York and Curacao. But despite the star power and exotic locations, this film just doesn’t quite win.

The audience meets Beth (Rebecca Hall) as she performs awkward private dances in the living rooms of older Floridian gentlemen. Her less-than-fulfilling career path leads her to an impulsive decision to move to Las Vegas and become a cocktail waitress.

After she meets other shoot-for-the-star pals sun bathing topless on their motel roof, Beth is soon introduced to Dink (Bruce Willis) of Dink Inc., a wealthy sports gambler.

As soon as Beth started twirling her hair in Dink’s direction, this potential hit begins to tank. The character building doesn’t add up, and the believability of a sexy 20-something going after the aging, mid-calf sock-wearing Dink is weak at best. Squirm as she grabs his hand, plays footsies and strokes his cheek. Unbearable.

Beth’s friend, Holly (Laura Prepon), asks the question the audience desperately wants to know as well: “Did you have some f***ed up thing with your dad?” There is no clear explanation for this odd, unmatched crush, which quickly becomes much more uncomfortable than charming.

When Dink’s high-maintenance wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones) returns from her cruise vacation, she quickly recognizes the odd sparks flying between her husband and the booty-short-wearing Beth.

Fortunately, Dink and Tulip’s relationship holds strong despite Beth’s googly-eyed ways. Dink fires the young woman before the two get beyond their awkward handholding. Tulip’s character unconvincingly switches from bitch to mentor. With these radical personality changes, one might consider prescribing Valium to everyone. Dink’s personality runs up and down from funny and helpful to dark and cruel. Perhaps director Stephen Frears was going for the inconsistency of the gambling world, but Lay just doesn’t provide enough transition or background to justify so many fickle characters.

Clearly, casting Hall was intended to feature a perky, wide-eyed innocent, but Beth’s hair-twirling, loudmouth bit is more obnoxious than cute.

One audience member at Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. screening said, “Ugh, her voice. I can’t handle it.” True enough: Hall’s whiny and naïve utterances are ear-cringing by the end of the hour-and-a-half flick.

But Lay is not a complete flop, and the audience was roaring with laughter at some of the clever dialogue. Zeta-Jones deserves props for sacrificing glamour to showcase her bruised and swollen face post-plastic surgery.

Though Hall’s shrill voice grew tiring, she had some great one-liners: “Look me in the eye over the phone,” she yells at one debt-evading customer as she tries to be ballsy, and almost turns threateningly homicidal by the end of the conversation. Of course, this is over the phone.

Lay’s premise of small-town girl making it in a dangerous high stakes world lacks clear presentation. The “climax” is jarringly obvious only by the increased tone of characters—you know things are getting serious because everyone is screaming, but the plot should have built toward the pinnacle, rather than using just volume.

The overall theme is weak, but the aim to exhibit a girl who learns she can make something out of her life had potential. There are a lot of stars, a lot of skin and some fabulously scenic locations, but Lay the Favorite ends up shrill and shallow.

Moviegoers might want to cash in their chips for another flick over this mediocre comedy.

Overall grade: C-, the film is colorful, fast and occasionally funny, but it doesn’t have a strong enough theme or tone to leave a viewer satisfied.



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