R (strong language, sexual content, drug use, nudity); 94 min.
Lay the Favorite is a small and not particularly ambitious movie, but it's pleasing and exceptionally well-made. It was directed by Stephen Frears, and while it's not up there with his best -- Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen, High Fidelity, Cheri -- it lavishes the same attention on the personal and on relationships, and it puts a woman at the center of the story.
Only a British director would have cast Rebecca Hall in this lead role. You might know Hall from Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, as Scarlett Johansson's proper, scholarly best friend. Here her essence is transformed, as Beth, an impulsive, gushing, mercurial young woman who decides to become a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas.
Lay the Favorite presents Vegas as a big town with a small town underneath it, an infrastructure built around certain key people and codes of ethics. Among those people is Dink, a professional gambler played by Bruce Willis.
When Beth goes to work for Dink, she learns all about odds and point spreads. And she falls in love with him and doesn't care that he has a wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Lay the Favorite is a very good movie for Bruce Willis, the best in a while. It's a role that won't win him any honors or make him richer, but he does get the chance to break out and play something besides his own legend.
The film stays fun throughout -- Vince Vaughn has a colorful turn as a maniacal bookie, perpetually wired and as shady as a veranda. But at times, it's also wise, putting truths in the mouths of even the minor characters. It's a movie about coming into one's adulthood, and sometimes on that journey it's the people you dislike that help you get there.
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-- Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle