Lay the favourite


Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, Joshua Jackson, Laura Prepon, John Carroll Lynch, Corbin Bernsen, Frank Grillo 15A cert, general release, 93 min

WITH THE best will in the world, you couldn’t describe the inestimable Stephen Frears as reliable.

For every Prick Up Your Ears there is a Mary Reilly. For every The Grifters there is a Cheri. Every time enthusiasts approach one of the director’s films they (and here’s an appropriate metaphor for the current project) feel as if a ball is being launched on the cinematic roulette wheel. Anything could happen.

Speak it quietly. Lay the Favourite might just be the worst film Frears has yet directed.

Everybody tries his or her best. You can see the veins standing out on the heads of Rebecca Hall and Catherine Zeta-Jones as they strive to make sense of a script that has no time for logic or consistency. Characters change personality more often than they change their costumes. A potentially fascinating milieu – the demimonde of sports betting – is so poorly explained that one never understands the source of the jeopardy. What on earth is going on?

Loosely based on a racy memoir by Beth Raymor, Lay the Favourite concerns the confusing, implausible adventures of a Floridian firecracker (retaining the author’s name) who ventures to Las Vegas with the intention of becoming a cocktail waitress. She quickly learns that this is a union town and she has as much chance of securing a tray as she has of breaking into the brain surgery business.

No matter. A pal introduces her to the owner (Bruce Willis) of some class of sports betting business – it’s hard to be more precise – and she quickly discovers a talent for memorising statistics and odds.

What do we make of the film’s take on Beth? It is naive to expect every movie protagonist to be likable, bright, moral or engaging. But some sort of anchor would be useful. Rebecca Hall, all permed hair and chewing-gum vowels, offers us the sort of person you’d leave any room — or state or country — to avoid. Her affections constantly swivel. Her supposed intelligence is hidden beneath irritating slabs of mindless chatter. Yet everybody ends up falling vaguely in love with the babbling nuisance.

Willis is married to Tulip, a terrifyingly jealous harridan played, with no concessions to volume or the cosmetics budget, by an undeniably game Zeta-Jones. As in Rock of Ages, the Welsh star works hard at confirming her status as the new Joan Crawford. Eyebrows propel themselves angrily into her plastered forehead. Her voice grates like ruptured fingernails on a freshly scrubbed blackboard.

The performance might have been a guilty masterwork if, for reasons of their own, the film- makers hadn’t decided to suddenly soften her persona and reveal some inner loveliness. One is reminded of those characters from popular sitcoms and soap operas – Hotlips in M*A*S*H, Mrs Mangle in Neighbours – who win over their hitherto hostile creators and inexplicably become caring eccentrics late in the projects’ runs.

The second half of the picture finds Beth employed by a less scrupulous gambler than Willis’s decent old geezer. It is, of course, Vince Vaughn. As another poorly explained calamity looms, Tulip, no longer jealous of Beth, joins her husband in a scheme to rescue Beth from financial and legal annihilation.

Nobody seems sure what sort of person they are playing or what sort of world is being summoned up. One gets the sense of talented actors attending a fancy-dress ball whose theme has been too vaguely explained on the invitation. It would not be altogether surprising if, in the final reel, it transpired that every character was some class of vampire or werewolf.

Sadly, that is not the case. Lay the Favourite eventually self-destructs amid a mess of pointless shouting and aimless arm-waving. Place your chips elsewhere.