Review originally published January 27, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Say what you will about Stephen Frears – the man has put in more than forty years of work as a director and rarely cranks out anything too generic for its own good (though the amiable enough "Miss Henderson Presents" comes close). Maybe in tackling Beth Raymer’s memoir, "Lay the Favorite," he thought he could return to the long cons of "The Grifters" or at least get to work with "High Fidelity" screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis again. Maybe he wanted a chance to direct the likes of Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vince Vaughn in an ensemble farce akin to "Tamara Drewe," and they, vice versa. Whatever the intent was, the result is that "Favorite" stands as not just an utterly tepid comedy, but possibly the most lifeless film in Frears’ generally acclaimed oeuvre.
Hall plays Raymer in Daisy Dukes’ shorts and with Judy Greer’s perky voice, a private exotic dancer craving a more honest sense of excitement in her life. With the blessing of her father (Corbin Bernsen), she flees Tallahassee, FL for Las Vegas, NV and eventually finds herself in the employ of Dink (Willis), a bookie who enjoys a good living and appreciates Beth’s enthusiasm. Even as she proves herself handy with numbers, she comes off like a ditz, much to the chagrin of Dink’s wife, Tulip (Zeta-Jones). Dink is torn between pleasing his wife and keeping around his latest good luck charm, while Beth is torn between a boss who wants her, but may not be able to keep her and the less scrupulous likes of Rosie (Vince Vaughn).
What follows is a generally tone-deaf lark in which characters screech at one another, often in phony Southern accents, when they’re not shouting at TV screens after placing their umpteenth critical bet. Every falling-out and reconciliation feels like a pat signpost, every zinger falls to have any zip, every scene is lit with the brightness of a sitcom and scored with an exhausting twang in lieu of genuine filmmaking flair or personality. And the ensemble favors the broad end of spectrum, with nigh every female on screen portrayed as an outright bimbo and every man a money-hungry dweeb. Willis comes off best with his droll demeanor, while Vaughn comes closest to stealing scenes by default, given how his manic mode suits well the film’s to-the-rafters mentality. Hall tries mightily to make sure that a sense of the real Beth comes through between limp gags, but Zeta-Jones’s performance as a shrew partial to face-lifts verges on good old-fashioned embarrassment.
On paper, the potential is there for an underdog caper of at least moderate appeal, but in execution, everyone is barely there – least of all Frears himself. Counting out the no-duh draw of a paycheck, when it comes to wondering why anyone bothered with "Lay the Favorite," all bets are off.