Air-headed “kid” Beth Raymer (Rebecca Hall, 30) is tired of stripping for men in trailers at gunpoint and aims to turn her fortunes around by moving to Las Vagas to become a cocktail waitress. Headhunted whilst trying to gamble with a coin-drop arcade machine, Beth starts working for professional betting man Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis) where she demonstrates an affinity with numbers and the ability to reorder the constituent letters of even the biggest words into alphabetical order.
Having fallen for Dink, however, Beth is soon fired in order to appease the bookie’s jealous wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Despite his sudden change of heart (he hires and fires her again within the space of 10 minutes, for no reason), she travels to New York City with one-night-stand Jeremy (Joshua Jackson) and quickly sets up shop with a rival sports gambler instead. When a bet goes wrong and threatens to land both of them in prison, they must ask for Dink’s help in order to clear their names and – you’d think – allow them to move on with their lives. This is a joke, right? This has to be a joke.
The basic premise of seminal J-Horror film Ringu is that there exists a movie so horrible, so apparently evil that it curses the viewer, offends nature (well, horses) and kills anyone who watches it almost without exception. In 2012, thanks to previously esteemed director Stephen Frears, you can finally pay to watch that movie.
I like Rebecca Hall. I mean, who wouldn’t? Her charmingly wry, slightly world-weary demeanour has elevated just about every movie she has ever been in (and perhaps even The Town, too), providing a reliably engaging and charismatic entry into the works of Woody Allen and Christopher Nolan. It appears, however, that Hall feels unfairly typecast in the role of a sympathetic, intelligent human being, and has as a result cast herself in the only screwball comedy Anna Faris has ever had the good sense to turn down. In the minutes it takes you to realise that nobody is in on the joke, cosmic though it is in size, Hall re-envisages herself as a woman so unlikeable, so inconsistent, so positively ludicrous that the only thing you can say in the actress’ favour is that she commits entirely – adopting a barmy come-to-bed voice throughout.
Lay the Favorite makes Katherine Heigl misstep One for the Money seem like a genius career move, the sheer misguidedness of Frear’s latest effort – an adaptation of the memoir of the same name, and therefore based on an implausibly true story – proving almost impossible to comprehend. As the stupid – and I mean stupid – plot developments pile up, and Beth Raymer goes from moronic stripper to (as of the end credits) successful writer, it becomes genuinely difficult to imagine how Lay The Favorite could possibly get any worse. Of course, this is precisely the moment at which Vince Vaughn swans onscreen in a bathrobe and makes you wish you’d walked out when you first considered it. By the time Joshua Jackson puts in an appearance and quickly undoes all of the good will afforded to him by Fringe, you will seriously consider never watching a single movie ever again.
By the biggest means of measurement available, however, the worst thing about Lay The Favorite is the truly dreadful script. This is a movie in which people say things like “I know, he’s my first [normal person]” and “you can’t bet sentimentally, you taught me that”; in which there is much talk of logic but little evidence of it in the actions of its characters; and in which, come the final moments, our protagonist chooses not to take her own advice regardless of sense and believability. The script is basically composed of a bunch of people calling each other jinxes, swearing without the necessary conviction and of Beth being fired, rehired and then fired again – all while the stage directions read “stop acting and just chew your hair”. It is usually the case that any attempts to shoehorn the film’s title into a movie feel horribly forced and cringe-inducing. In Lay The Favorite it’s just about the only line that actually works.
Considering the talent involved, both in front and behind the camera, Lay The Favorite really should have no plausible reason to exist. It’s badly written, poorly directed and acted as if by young actors in need of a paycheck before they make it big (if Hall had filmed this twenty years ago and spent the rest of her career trying to bury it, this would almost be excusable). As you might expect, I anticipate Sadako’s call any minute now.