The IMDb is clogged with modestly-budgeted, star-studded product not fit for mass release, but few have been helmed by an accomplished two-time Oscar nominee. The only moment in Lay the Favorite, a listless gambling comedy, to cause a bump on the EKG meter is the director credit at the end: It’s not some anonymous hack, as you’d have every reason to assume, but Stephen Frears, of My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liasons, The Grifters, The Queen and others. Frears is a terribly inconsistent filmmaker, more journeyman than artist, but his work tends to have a base competence. Lay the Favorite seems to have been made by someone who has stopped caring. It’s heartbreaking.
His cast, however, has–save Joshua Jackson, snoozy as ever–not stopped caring, which turns out to be a problem. Any sensible director would have reined them in, but Frears allows grotesque performances that are as keyed-up as his filmmaking is disinterested. Chief among these is Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, etc.), playing a ditzy ex-stripper who “aspires” to be a cocktail waitress and winds up embroiled in the world of bookies. Hall, a serious and excellent actress, tries hard the way someone who doesn’t do comedy does comedy. Her wide-eyed performance appears to be a broad impersonation of Judy Greer, making one wonder why they didn’t just hire Judy Greer. Hall’s Beth, who turns out to be a savant for this kind of employment, is paired with Dink, a Vegas gambling vet who enters into a relationship that’s part-business, part-flirtation, which enrages his sweary gold digger wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones, horrifically miscast and cruelly lit).
Hypoethetically, one ought to cherish a Bruce Willis performance in which he actually cares. This is a banner year for him, with two soulful turns in excellent films (Moonrise Kingdom and Looper), but he ought to have treated Lay the Favorite with the same regal disdain he reserves for the likes of Cop Out. Instead, his exuberance–like that of his character’s rival, played by a more-obnoxious-than-usual Vince Vaughn—adds to the tonal disconnect where over-the-top performances play out before lifeless filmmaking by a filmmaker who, once upon a time, actually gave a shit.