IF Frank Sinatra was correct and luck be a lady, then she failed to glance in the direction of Stephen Frears’s ham-fisted comic caper.
Based on a colourful memoir by journalist Beth Raymer, Lay The Favourite is the unlikely tale of a free-spirited stripper who discovers her calling in the high stakes world of sports bookmaking.
“As luck would have it, the following story is true,” promises the film during its opening titles sequence.
Evidently, fiction is duller than fact because screenwriter DV DeVincentis struggles to construct a screwball comedy from the promising source material, striking an uneven tone that inspires lacklustre performances from the starry cast.
Rebecca Hall possesses a disarming ditziness as the heroine, who discovers she is good with figures, while Catherine Zeta Jones is squandered as a forceful wife, who believes that cosmetic surgery is the route to lasting happiness.
Comic timing doesn’t quite click, even when Vince Vaughn enters the fray as a showboating bookmaker, who belittles a rival by quipping, “He is the ’57 Chevy of gambling. All modesty aside, I’m the Ferrari”.
Alas, Frears’s film is a second-hand banger.
Beth Raymer (Hall) hails from Tallahassee and ekes out an unfulfilling living by shedding her clothes for beer-swilling punters in the privacy of their trailer parks.
“I want good money and a change of scenery. I want to move to Las Vegas and be a cocktail waitress!” she tells her father.
Among the bright lights of the Nevada desert, bookmaker Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis) introduces her to the thrills of illegal sports gambling.
Beth’s natural aptitude and boundless enthusiasm pique Dink’s interest and she becomes a good luck charm.
As Dink gravitates towards his flirty protegee, their close-working relationship generates friction with his vampy wife, Tulip (Zeta Jones), and Beth is compelled to seek alternative employment with rival Rosie (Vaughn).
Thankfully, a romance with kind-hearted journalist Jeremy (Joshua Jackson) drags Beth back from the brink of crushing defeat.Lay The Favourite unfolds at a sluggish pace and lacks charm or belly laughs.
The romantic subplot is hamstring by inert screen chemistry between Hall and Jackson, and the final sting falls flat.
Despite the best efforts of Frears to hustle us into caring about the undernourished characters, the film’s odds of success are extremely long.