Sometimes a film describes itself in miniature without realizing it: In the opening scene of Lay the Favorite, Beth (Rebecca Hall) cheerfully writhes around in her underwear in the sun-filled suburban mansion of a margarita-wielding midlifer in khaki shorts before a smash cut reveals her to be a stripper imagining a better life from the depressing confines of a trailer park in the wrong part of town. By the time Stephen Frears’s film has run its course, Beth will have discovered her right to demand respect on her own merits as more than just a piece of meat—as it turns out, as a gambling prodigy.
After escaping to Vegas (cue the neon-sign montage!), she comes under the thumb of super-bookie Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis, in long white socks), who recognizes a mind-blowing, uncanny talent for picking winners and brings her aboard his team. Dink is, of course, thoroughly tempted (as apparently is Frears’s camera) by Hall’s amber-waxed thighs and flouncy, dum-dum countenance, which creates problems with his wife, Tulip, played with great flair by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who scores the film’s biggest laugh when her looks-obsessed character tells Beth, matter-of-factly, “Do not fuck my husband.”
Whatever movie Frears saw in his mind’s eye when he agreed to make this must have been a “romp.” But without satire, without bigger ideas, without any attempt to reproduce the narcotic thrill of gambling, any thoughts on the systemic distribution of illegal money, any authentically jarring shifts in Beth’s life, without any kind of special sauce whatsoever, the film becomes nigh-classist: Hollywood celebrities romping around in a candy-colored Alexa-shot criminal underworld, pretty much as a means of passing time. Lay the Favorite is obviously worse than it should be, but it’s also a thinner and more pallid experience than it would have been if it were a total catastrophe—if it had any ambition. As it stands, it’s content to aim squarely for the much-celebrated Indiewood middle, and falls short. As an ISAF commander once complained of Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan, “Betting on lucky is never a strategy.”