Sometimes watching a particular film you can’t help but wonder where it all went wrong. The source material may be ripe with opportunity, and there may be plenty of great people involved both in front of and behind the camera. But somewhere along the line, things went from bad to worse in screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis’ adaptation of Beth Raymer’s memoir of Lay the Favorite. When I saw the film was being helmed by Stephen Frears, and was written by DeVincentis, the co-writer of his own High Fidelity, I held out hope that the scathing reviews weren’t true. But alas, I will freely admit they are. This is a film of Gigli proportions, even considering this one stars Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Vince Vaughn, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Beth (Hall) works as an exotic dancer in Tallahassee, Florida. She finally decides she’s had enough of her current job after a client points a gun at her. Her father (Corbin Bernsen) encourages her when she tells him that she wants to live a more exciting life and that she’s moving to Las Vegas to become a cocktail waitress. Talk about dreams of grandeur. She takes her father’s advice to leave her worries “in the rearview” and heads to Sin City. After she’s told to simmer down on the Flip It games, she moves into a hotel room with her dog and starts lying out on the roof with her new friend Holly (Laura Prepon). Soon enough, she is told to check into Dink, Inc. run by Dink Heimowitz (Willis).
Turns out Dink is a bookie who proclaims his job as “professional gambler” – meaning he’ll bet on anything from horse racing to backgammon tournaments to spelling bees. Dink is married to Tulip (Zeta-Jones) who doesn’t like the fact that a naïve girl in a short skirt seems to be trying to make the moves on her hubby. After a string of bad luck and some nagging from the old ball and chain, Dink fires Beth for the sake of his marriage. Now Beth meets cute Jeremy (Joshua Jackson) over the same Flip It and he talks her into moving to New York City where he works as a journalist.
Beth quickly tires of the Big Apple (“It’s like living inside someone’s mouth”) but takes a job with Dink’s rival Rosie (Vaughn). Rosie has just set up shop but quickly moves headquarters out of the states to avoid being picked off by the feds. Somewhere in all this, Beth meets Dave Greenberg (John Carroll Lynch) who has an itch for gambling and a lot of money winds up getting owed to Rosie. Dave goes missing (i.e. won’t answer his phone) and threats are made that Dave may turn Beth in to his parole office. Now Beth has to find a way to get the money back and save her own neck from prison, along with poor Jeremy’s.
If this sounds convoluted, that’s because it most certainly is. And while everything may be played to wacky extremes, and seems to be based on true events, that doesn’t mean that any of it works. While the Sundance Premieres category may be films with more hype in the distribution ring, this thing plays out more along the lines of another awful Elmore Leonard adaptation. It brings to mind the likes of Be Cool or The Big Bounce. Yikes indeed. The music also makes it sound like it’s supposed to be some kind of comedic western. After finding out the budget on this was $20 million it also makes you wonder what it’s doing in the festival, let alone that someone thought this was better than the other 11,000 plus entries.
Chock full of apparent reshoots already; random scenes seem to have been filmed on different film stock and are a completely different color scheme or just plain out of focus. This is not a good sign for a film that seems to already be missing plenty of exposition as there’s absolutely no way to keep track of what’s going on. At one point Dink tells Beth, “I can hear the logic rattling around in there somewhere,” and it almost seems like maybe Willis was thinking out loud more than a scripted line. And we all know that they say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, and the same goes for everything that happens in Lay the Favorite, one of the worst of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival by far.