Film Review: Lay the Favorite

This shaggy-dog story based on the improbable real-life adventures of exotic dancer-turned-bookie-turned-journalist Beth Raymer is never quite as amusing as it thinks it is.

Beth is making a good living as a private dancer in a small Florida town, but it's not what she wants to do with her life—she can't even bring herself to tell her dad how she pays the rent, a man so sweetly supportive that he's 100% behind her when she announces that she wants to go to Las Vegas and be a cocktail waitress. So she packs up her bag and lovable dog and makes tracks for Sin City.

Fortunately for Beth, she's not a sinning kind of girl, so she's immune to the many unsavory temptations, even when getting a waitressing gig proves tougher than she imagined. And fate drops a much better opportunity in her lap: a job working for professional gambler Dink (Bruce Willis), who sees a protégée in the long drink of water with a steel-trap mind for numbers. Not only does she pick up the business in record time, she finds a new family in Dink and fellow employees Jerry (Corbin Bernsen) and Scott (Wayne Pere).

The trouble in paradise is, naturally, that she falls for the married Dink, who—to his credit—does nothing to encourage her: He treats her like one of the boys and makes it clear from the outset that he's devoted to his wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a sharp cookie who has Beth's number from the minute she lays eyes on Dink. Beth eventually meets Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), a sweetheart of a guy who convinces her to move to New York with him. But that's not the end of her unlikely experiences—not by a long shot.

Director Stephen Frears keeps Lay the Favorite moving at a brisk clip (in part by excising Beth's brief career as a boxer—talk about stranger than fiction), and stacks the deck with a charming rogues' gallery of supporting players, but it still feels longer than any caprice should. The trouble, ultimately, is Beth herself: She's got a mile-wide smile and a personality so bubbly she could turn water into seltzer, but that's about it—her inner life is only skin-deep, the sum total of a wistful look or two, and she’s such a cotton-candy wisp of a thing that it's hard to take seriously the brief clouds that darken her sunny life. And without any real drama, the whole business is just a picaresque comedy with no fizz, sweet but flat.