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Lay The Favorite

If, like me, you watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies, you’ve probably had the experience of coming across a movie with a lot of familiar stars and wondering why you’ve never heard of it. Then you watch it and realize that it was probably something thrown together by the studio to keep a couple of contract stars busy while they weren’t doing anything else to earn their salaries.

It doesn’t have the excuse of being a studio assembly-line product, but Lay the Favorite plays like that. It has a cast of familiar faces being charming in a premise that catches your attention. But while it holds your interest, largely because you can’t figure out where it’s going, it just never seems to develop any reason for being.

British actress Rebecca Hall has a change-of-pace starring role as Beth, whose desire for “stimulation, good money, and a change of scenery” sends her off to Las Vegas to become s cocktail waitress. Given that her previous employment has been on the edges of the adult entertainment industry, this is more of a step up than it may sound.

Despite knowing nothing about gambling, she gets a job with Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis), a sports gambler perpetually looking for ways to beat the odds. He works out of an office labeled (what else?) “Dink Ink.”and before long Beth is learning all kinds of new things. Tension with Dink’s wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones) sends Beth off to New York to work to work with Dink’s rival Rosie (Vince Vaughn), whose lackadaisical attitude toward federal laws soon has her relying on Dink’s help again.

Although Lay the Favorite is based on a true story, it proceeds about as perfunctorily as the description above. You get to see a lot of high-stakes betting but never get a feel for what’s really going on (like the meaning of the awful title). Explaining the intricacies of gambling in the internet era is something a film is ill-equipped to do, but screenwriter D. V. DeVincentis (High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank) should have thought of that before making a movie about it.

Ably if blandly directed by veteran British filmmaker Steven Frears (The Grifters), it’s a not unpleasant way to spend 93 minutes (10 minutes shorter than when it premiered at Sundance): Hall has fun with her role, and the rest of the cast are always watchable. I wouldn’t exactly call that a recommendation, unless you’ve seen everything else playing already.

Watch the trailer for Lay The Favorite

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