Life is always better when you’re winning.
Less than a month ago I found myself watching Showgirls, Paul Verhoevan’s effusively sexual story about a young girl learning the ins & outs of pole dancing in Las Vegas. What was so troubling about the production of the film, released in 1995, was not so much the big budget irresponsibility shown by the studio, but the misunderstanding of Las Vegas (and the rest of the US) from the Dutch director. Eventually my opinion softened, thinking he wrote Showgirls as a clumsy mistake rather than ill-conceived international misconception. Until Lay the Favorite, a film by British native Stephen Frears, proved my gut feeling.
Lay the Favorite is based on the memoirs of Beth Raymer, a stripper turned betting-wiz under the hot sun of Las Vegas. There she meets Dink (Willis), who runs Dink Inc., the modern high court of sports betting. Excited by her new job (and the fact she can keep her clothes on), Beth finds herself feeling more than friendly with Dink. This would be fine except for the boss’s wife, Tulip, a high class shrew that keeps her husband on a short lease. What results is the feeling that gambling doesn’t always have money on the line.
Leading the film as Beth Raymer, is Rebecca Hall, also a Brit. While Raymer’s character in the novel is unknown to me, Hall’s childishly excitable demeanor and rife naiveté appears contrived; which, sadly, rivals her past performances. Even worse, the relationship with Dink lacks the compelling nature of shades of grey, boring viewers with cut-and-dry chiaroscuro.
Not that Willis was outstanding support. Clad in loose fitting bada-bing shirts, and a morosely excitable nature, Dink, the ace of betting, would seem limp even if he found a veritable talisman. When moments of anger take hold, (seemingly out of nowhere), we question the impetus of the character rather than understand dire consequences. One would think Willis’ performance is less a loss in technique than the effects of a filled calendar, having starred in Moonrise Kingdom, Expendables 2, Looper in 2012, and the release of yet another Die Hard sequel this year; (the word “backburner” comes to mind.)
Catherine Zeta Jones stands out like a femme fatale, excessively glossed up (which may have been a joke) to stand out in each scene. The script allows too brief speaking lines or screen presence, but her role makes up for the lack romance in the film, at least more than Joshua Jackson. The Dawson’s Creek star is too belated in his introduction as a more suitable and sensible partner for Beth. His performance is sturdy, but lacks lasting value due a shallow screenplay. And, for his part, Vince Vaughn shines in stifling his typical over-the-top demeanor to portray a supporting splinter in the narrative.
Real blame can only be attributed to Mr. Frears and DeVincentis. The team collaborated previously for High Fidelity, a sentimental (and satisfying) adaption of the Nick Hornby novel of the same name. Ironically, Frears moved the UK based story to Chicago, Illinois, smack dab in the American Midwest. It appears that the farther the Dangerous Liaisons director moves from home the less success his work permeates – a sad truth. Frears’ previous efforts, in particular, The Queen and Dirty Pretty Things are steller, while dusty life in Nevada feels harshly foreign.
I didn’t feel as if my time was wasted with Lay the Favorite, but rather left curious: what is the movie about? If it is a comedy, one can count the amount of laughter on one hand. Drama? That category would have one believe there are emotionally compelling moments, (despite occasionally brimming on the threshold of intriguing). The film dances on the precipice between trust and camaraderie but certainly not casinos or gambling, as one would think from the poster. Learning for the sordid in Vegas are what audiences look for, like being privy in Casino or living dangerously in Fear and Loathing. While Lay the Favorite is certainly light-hearted and “fun”, and (probably) better than Showgirls, both productions are undoubtedly lost in translation.