Lay the Favorite is hardly the film anyone familiar with Stephen Frears’s better work would want or expect of the English director, but that isn’t to say his Las Vegas-set dramedy is entirely without merit. Concerning a stripper-turned-gambling handicapper, it occasionally gestures toward the staid but ultimately proves uninterested in actually getting its hands dirty; light fare to be sure, but likeable enough as such. And though it may be giving the movie more credit than it deserves to suggest that, on a certain thematic level, it reads like a PG-13 conflation of the pie-in-the-sky conception of Las Vegas exhibited (and swiftly deconstructed) by Showgirls and the number-crunching of Moneyball, here we are.
In practice these underpinnings do little to alter the fact that this doesn’t amount to much more than a slight but joyful romp through Sin City, albeit one which occasionally touches on the unreality of that desert oddity and the “one of us” mentality its permanent residents instill among the recently initiated. One gets the sense, in watching these people—most of whom are failing in their attempts to get lucky or even stay afloat—that all of them ended up here not on purpose but for lack of anywhere else to go. There’s something poetic about that notion, but it goes almost entirely unexplored here.
Vegas as rendered by Frears and his cast (namely, Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Vince Vaughn) resembles a sort of city of lost children who come to find a rising star in Beth Raymer, the drifter played by Hall who arrives on the strip with no money and no aspirations beyond working as a cocktail waitress in a casino. This lofty ambition is roughly on par with that of the film itself, which in theory has dramatic potential—a deeper look at the nitty-gritty workings of a small-time gambling ring and the broken dreams that come with it comes to mind—but tends to handle these elements with too light a touch. Which is fine: Lay the Favorite makes no claim to being anything more than a serviceable, if at times too breezy, comedy. One nevertheless suspects that a higher level of ambition is far from mutually exclusive with what’s on display here.
Its proficiency as lighter fare aside, the film’s rare ventures into more serious territory feel forced. Put simply, the characters (Hall’s in particular) aren’t suited for it. The story is based on Raymer’s autobiography of the same name, and at no point does she come across as an especially intriguing figure, let alone one worth centering an entire movie around; in an odd way, the fact that this is a true story makes it less interesting. Lay the Favorite is fine when taken on its own terms but, for reasons already mentioned, it’s often difficult to do so.