If Frank Sinatra was correct and luck be a lady, then she failed to glance in the direction of Stephen Frears’s ham-fisted comic caper.
Based on a colourful memoir by journalist Beth Raymer, Lay The Favourite is the unlikely tale of a free-spirited stripper who discovers her calling in the high stakes world of sports bookmaking.
“As luck would have it, the following story is true,” promises the film during its opening titles sequence.
Evidently, fiction is duller than fact because screenwriter DV DeVincentis struggles to construct a screwball comedy from the promising source material, striking an uneven tone that inspires lacklustre performances from the starry cast.
Rebecca Hall possesses a disarming ditziness as the heroine, who discovers she is good with figures other than her own, while Catherine Zeta Jones is squandered as a forceful wife, who believes that cosmetic surgery is the route to lasting happiness.
Comic timing doesn’t quite click, even when Vince Vaughn enters the fray as a showboating bookmaker, who belittles a rival by quipping, “He is the ‘57 Chevy of gambling. All modesty aside, I’m the Ferrari”.
Alas, Frears’s film is a second-hand banger.
Beth Raymer (Hall) hails from Tallahassee and ekes out an unfulfilling living by shedding her clothes for beer-swilling punters in the privacy of their trailer parks.
“I want good money and a change of scenery. I want to move to Las Vegas and be a cocktail waitress!” Beth excitedly informs her father.
So she packs up her belongings and heads to the bright lights of the Nevada desert where bookmaker Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis) introduces her to the thrills and spills of illegal sports gambling.
Beth’s natural aptitude and boundless enthusiasm pique Dink’s interest and she becomes a good luck charm for his co-workers Scott (Wayne Pere) and Frankie (Frank Grillo).
As Dink gravitates towards his flirty protegee, their close-working relationship generates friction with his vampy wife, Tulip (Zeta Jones).
When the tension becomes unbearable, Beth is compelled to seek alternative employment with rival Rosie (Vaughn), who trumpets selfishness and greed.
“People do things for themselves. Being nice is a racket,” he preaches.
Thankfully, a romance with kind-hearted and trusting journalist Jeremy (Joshua Jackson) drags Beth back from the brink of crushing defeat.
Lay The Favourite unfolds at a sluggish pace and lacks charm or belly laughs.
The cast members are clearly working hard to raise even a smile let alone a chuckle and the 93-minute running time feels much longer.
The romantic subplot is hamstring by inert screen chemistry between Hall and Jackson, and the final sting falls flat.
Despite the best efforts of Frears to hustle us into caring about the undernourished characters, the film’s odds of success are extremely long.
By Damon Smith
:: SWEARING :: SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 5/10
Released: June 22 (UK & Ireland), 93 mins