Years ago, Bruce Willis was a handsome leading man and Stephen Frears directed sharp, moody slices of life like “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “The Grifters.”
Then Catherine Zeta-Jones arrived as one of the great beauties of the age, constantly threatening to become a movie star. From the release of “Swingers,” Vince Vaughn established himself as a comic actor and writer who could project depth.
Meanwhile, easy-on-the-eye Joshua Jackson displayed enough effortless charisma to elevate even minor genre pieces, while Rebecca Hall made her stage debut to acclaim and immediately moved on to a series of interesting movie roles.
They have all come together for the eccentric gambling dramedy “Lay the Favorite.” The cast even includes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Corbin Bernsen and Laura Prepon offering an eyeful. Sounds like a sure thing.
On the other hand, Hall’s is not the first face that pops to mind when asked to envision a Florida “dancer” who makes trailer calls, or someone whose career goal is to become a Las Vegas cocktail waitress.
But she throws herself into Beth’s dream with enthusiastic perkiness. Her character remains upbeat even when she quickly learns the odds are against her. In the cheap motel where she finds a room, she runs women further down her path, notably Prepon as Laura.
Wised-up but not wise enough to split, Laura sends Beth off to an old boss, professional gambler Dink (Willis), who always needs assistants to help handle the action.
Bruce Willis is always a gamble. He might pay off as a low-key working guy, worn around the edges but still with grit. Or he craps out as a sleepwalker with a big gun and a bigger smirk.
“Lay the Favorite” gives us a Willis wheel: quiet and friendly, ranting and raving, tender and loving, playing and tomcatting. Any one of these options might pay off, but not all of them.
Willis’ character ramble is typical of the entire movie, lurching from one emotion to the next. As it turns out, Beth has a head for numbers. She’s one of the guys. No, she’s the guy Dink wants. She thinks he should drop his wife. Instead, they work it. Dink fires Beth. She meets a nice guy. Dink decides he needs her back, but only for luck.
Screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis has not had a lot of credits over the years, but the relevant one is “Grosse Pointe Blank,” a self-consciously hip middle-class gangster yarn that started with good material but did not know what to make of it.
A steady hand in the director’s chair might at least set the right tone. As recently as “The Queen” in 2006, Frears found the dry comedy in a dismal subject. Frears also did DeVincentis' perfectly all right "High Fidelity." But like one of the charactes here, the director must have been taking in Celine Dion when he should have been working.
Their latest collaboration plays like it should occasionally contain a "scene missing" title card. “Lay the Favorite” lurches along like a get-rich-quick scheme, trying for a payoff without putting in the work to set it up.