In the achingly inessential Lay The Favorite, Rebecca Hall plays a directionless sexpot so ditsy, she seems incapable of reading a book, let alone writing the memoir on which the film is based. Hall maintains a sunny, oblivious innocence throughout, in spite of her character’s background in the lighter side of the sex trade and her subsequent immersion into the shadowy world of bookmaking and professional gambling. She plays her author-to-be as a holy naïf, a numerical idiot savant who never seems to be corrupted or even stained by the sleaze surrounding her.
Lay The Favorite casts Hall as a quintessential daddy’s girl who flees a bad situation in Florida and heads to Las Vegas to realize her dream of becoming a cocktail waitress at a casino. When that line of work fails to materialize, she unexpectedly falls into a job working for a refreshingly warm, restrained, fatherly Bruce Willis, a gambling legend whose trophy wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) doesn’t take too kindly to her husband hanging out with a young protégé so transparently in love with him that cartoon hearts practically surround Hall every time she’s in Willis’ presence. When Willis lets her go, Hall rebounds by hooking up with a nice-guy journalist played by Joshua Jackson (whose character never evolves beyond being a generic nice guy) and goes to work for a sketchy Jewish operator in New York, played by Vince Vaughn in nebbishy, hammy, but enjoyable character-actor mode.
Stephen Frears’ inconsequential film is never better than in early scenes that map out the codes and rituals of its moderately seedy Sin City milieu. At best, Lay The Favorite registers as cartoon sociology, but the film’s featherweight charms dissipate whenever it moves away from the world of gambling and devotes time to go-nowhere subplots involving Hall’s bland romance with Jackson, or Willis’ troubled but fundamentally healthy marriage to Zeta-Jones. Like the rambling ’70s character studies it sometimes resembles, Lay The Favorite casts an affectionate eye on the lives of small-time players struggling to realize equally small-time dreams, but it meanders so aimlessly during a deflating second half that it never comes close to justifying its existence. There’s nothing wrong with telling small stories about small lives, but Lay The Favorite never sufficiently explains why its heroine’s story matters, or why it’s worth telling. It’s champagne-light, but unfortunately mostly just fizz.