Lay the Favourite (2012)

Review first published in S&S Aug 2012

Lay the Favourite

Synopsis: Ambitious yet wide-eyed Tallahassee private dancer Beth sets her sights on becoming a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas – but is instead employed, despite her inexperience, by older, married professional gambler Dink. Beth takes as quickly to her new boss as to the work, until Dink, at the request of his watchful wife Tulip, fires her. Lovelorn Beth meets single journalist Jeremy, and is about to drive off with him to a new life in New York, when Dink, now in a slump, asks her to come back to work for him on a strictly professional basis, with Tulip’s blessing. As Dink blames everyone else for his losing streak, Beth reluctantly leaves.

Living in New York with Jeremy, Beth brings in keen gambler Dave Green and his friends to illegal bookmaker Rosie, who hires her on the spot. Leaving Jeremy to run Green’s book in New York, Beth joins Rosie’s new legitimate gambling business on Curaçao, fast realising how unprofessional Rosie is compared to Dink. When Green refuses to pay a $75,000 debt and threatens to bring Beth and Jeremy before the Federal Authorities, Rosie abandons Beth. With Dink and Tulip in New York to help, Beth makes a deal with Green to gamble $40,000 more on a basketball game, with the potential $80,000 winnings going to her. Dink also takes out his own private $70,000 bet with Rosie on the same game. The team wins. Beth goes on to marry Jeremy, get a college education, and become a writer.

Review: We first meet Beth Raymer (Rebecca Hall) standing upside-down in a hotel room dressed only in her underwear, taking instructions from a polite middle-aged client. Cut to her next assignment as a ‘private dancer’, and she is in an altogether seedier trailer, with a john creepily brandishing a pistol over her head. Clearly it is time for this bubbly yet ambitious young woman to move on. “I want stimulation, I want money, I want a change of scenery,” she explains to her father Jerry (Corbin Bensen), “I want to move to Las Vegas and become a cocktail waitress!” “Goddam!”, Jerry replies, “Goddam, that is a great idea!”

The only way is up for white-trash sex worker Beth – yet those opening scenes also economically sketch a woman who remains a wide-eyed little girl, constantly seeking instructions and approval from daddy or any other father figure. In Las Vegas, she inevitably gravitates into the orbit of another older man, the depressive professional gambler Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis), who offers her the paternal guidance she so craves, but also recognises her untapped potential. When their professional relationship risks becoming something more, Dink’s wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones) swiftly intervenes  – but once Beth has been carefully reconfigured as the daughter that Dink and Tulip never had, she is able to go out into the world, find her own feet, and assume independence as a confident, solvent woman, all with her adoptive parents’ blessing. Now she can get a college education, and write her memoirs.

The script for Stephen Frears Lay The Favourite has been drawn from the real Beth Raymer’s memoirs by screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis (who had previously helped adapt High Fidelity for Frears), but the screenwriter appears to have hedged his bets in forming the narrative, resulting in mixed messages and a certain incoherence. The considerable amount of exposition apportioned to the complex mechanics of Dink’s gambling operation (in which potential winnings are bolstered through the systematic manipulation of odds) seems to be setting up a convoluted long-con plot, as in Frears’ earlier The Grifters (1990); but all this information turns out to be there purely for its own sake, as a didactic (and ultimately irrelevant) exposé of the workings of high-end sports gambling, and is entirely abandoned in the climactic sequence where blind chance is preferred to rationalised betting schemes.

The closing sequence also undermines the film’s careful thematic exploration of the psychological relationship between luck and responsibility, by loading the dice too much in favour of feel-good fantasy. When everyone ends up winning – and winning merely by the vagaries of fortune – a more nuanced message about the science of betting becomes lost to sentiment. “I deserve this,” is the only reason Beth gives for her certainty that the odds will be in her favour – but her words are neither true, nor so different from what many high-stakes gamblers blindly believe, making her subsequent victory merely an unsatisfyingly arbitrary affirmation of wish-fulfilment.

The film’s strongest suit is as a coming-of-age, rags-to-riches tale in which the upwardly mobile trajectory of the American Dream is writ large in self-realisation (and wads of transferred cash), with Beth’s extended family in the end assembling not so much to resolve her problems for her as to support her in helping herself to financial independence and a settled life. Meanwhile the funniest moments belong to New York bookmaker Rosie (Vince Vaughn), a character entirely invented by DeVincentis, but his larger-than-life absurdity sits incongruously with everything and everyone else. The cast here is in fine form, but must play long odds against a desultory script.

Anton Bitel