A wan comedy about gambling that takes no risks, Stephen Frears' Lay the Favorite has none of the stinging sordidness of The Grifters, his 1990 movie about chiselers and con artists. That tight, nimble adaptation of Jim Thompson's high-pulp, strained-through, Greek-tragedy 1963 novel endures as the only other good film besides 2006's The Queen that the prolific Frears has directed in the past 22 years. Another page-to-screen transfer, Lay the Favorite, based on Beth Raymer's 2010 memoir of the same name, screeches and scrambles from scene to scene with manic sitcom energy, much like the cherished pet hamster of one of its characters.
The film opens with a montage of Beth (Rebecca Hall), first seen upside down, entertaining various gentlemen in their Tallahassee homes as a private stripper. When one pulls out a gun during her routine to "Unskinny Bop," she decides it's time for a less risky career, driving with her dog to Las Vegas, where she's determined to become a cocktail waitress. When that trade proves impossible to break into ("This is a union town," a casino manager scoffs), Beth is given a tip by an acquaintance to try Dink (Bruce Willis), overseer of a sports-betting franchise. Quick with numbers, she also brings Dink a run of good luck, arousing the jealousy of his wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones, drastically slimmed down). To appease the missus, he must fire Beth, who then relocates to New York with Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), a journalist she flirted with at a Flip It machine. In her new city, which has more gambling prohibitions, she falls in with Troy "Rosie" Roseland (Vince Vaughn), a former associate of Dink's, eventually following him to his operation in Curaçao, which is played by a pond and a converted storage facility somewhere in Louisiana.
I haven't read Raymer's memoir, which D.V. DeVincentis (one of the writers of Frears' High Fidelity) adapted, so I can't say for certain how much of the tone and drive — simultaneously antic and listless — is rooted in the source material. But only Frears is to blame for not reining in some of his actors, namely Vaughn, whose bookmaker is dismissed by Dink as a "ganef," and whose performance, rendered in a highly unstable "Jewish" accent, appears pitched to wake the ghosts of Yiddish theater.
Also struggling with borscht-y intonation is John Carroll Lynch, playing Long Island resident Dave Greenberg, in hock to Beth for 75K. (These auditory assaults also hampered Frears' 2009 Chéri, yet another adaptation, this time of two Colette novels.) Conversely, some performers have been instructed to let sight gags do all the heavy lifting for them: Willis doesn't do much more than sport knee-high tube socks and novelty T-shirts, and look lovingly at a framed photo of that above-mentioned rodent.
The balance is almost right — or at least intriguing enough — in Hall's portrayal of Beth. The talented British actress, for whom a leading part in a worthy vehicle has proved elusive ever since her breakthrough role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), combines overheated 1950s CinemaScope sex goddess with New American Cinema oddity. The result is akin to watching Shelley Duvall in 3 Women as swallowed by Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It. It's a bold gambit and often works: Twirling her hair distractedly, strutting in Daisy Dukes and cowboy boots, or speaking in a high, pre-orgasmic register, Hall radiates an outsize sexuality that is saved from cartoonishness by well-timed pauses and hesitations.
Then again, Hall has little choice but to rely on her body. Beth's thin backstory is parceled out stingily; there's an offhand mention of trouble in a Thai restaurant leading to her freelance gigs in the skin trade in Florida and a passing reference to a junior college basketball scholarship. More of these details might have made Lay the Favorite something greater than just a busy, generic picaresque. (The flatness of the storytelling is matched by the drab visuals.) Hall's performance is the only truly daring element of Frears' film: strenuously physical, constantly teetering on the verge of being just too much, almost pornographic (I can't help but think of Norman Mailer's immortal adjective "fucky," used to describe Marilyn Monroe). But the curious mixture of discomfort and arousal Hall's character incites isn't enough to lift the film — or Beth — from its perfunctory wheel-spinning.