By Chaz Lipp

Lay the Favorite is a comedy about sports gambling directed by the great Stephen Frears and starring Bruce Willis. Let me just say this upfront: the film, set in Las Vegas, is an unqualified mess—not very funny and not very coherent. It was based on a memoir by exotic dancer-turned-bookmaker Beth Raymer, portrayed in the film by Rebecca Hall (The Town). In addition to Willis and Hall, the surprisingly distinguished cast includes Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, and Joshua Jackson.

While watching Favorite, I was reminded of another pastel-colored, sunshiny comedy bomb, 2004’s The Big Bounce. Though not similar in terms of content, both films collected a bunch of reliable actors (in Bounce’s case, Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, Charlie Sheen) and were adapted from acclaimed literary sources (Bounce was a book by Elmore Leonard). In both films, the actors seem to be barely exerting an effort, content with enjoying a working vacation in a warm climate (Bounce was set in Hawaii). Sometimes a group of talented people get together and seemingly forget their task is to entertain us. The only actor in Favorite who breaks a sweat is poor Rebecca Hall, who really works hard to make Beth a lively presence.

Early on, Beth decides to ditch the private dancing and put her memory and number-related skills to positive use. Her friend Holly (Laura Prepon) puts her in touch with Dink (Willis) of Dink Inc., an outlet that lays bets on all manner of sporting event. Though Prepon (who oddly seems to be channeling Jamie Pressley) is saddled with a thankless role, That ‘70s Show devotees should note that she does her first onscreen nudity here with a topless sunbathing scene. Anyway, Dink welcomes the bubbly Beth into his organization with open arms. The two become so chummy, Dink’s wife Tulip (Zeta-Jones) wants to force her out. For reasons that are never entirely clear, Dink follows through by canning his best employee, thus hurting his business (the source of funding for all of Tulip’s cosmetic surgery).

Shady, unscrupulous Rosie (Vaughn) serves as a kind of benign villain. He used to work with Dink, but he’s far less principled. Beth gets a job with him and soon finds that working for Rosie is nothing like working for Dink. She’s uncomfortable with the outright illegal nature of Rosie’s operation, as opposed to the more ambiguous, quasi-legal setup Dink has. As the plot thickens, the audience’s patience is tried. A boyfriend for Beth, a journalist named Jeremy (Jackson), adds little to the proceedings other than another character to keep track of. It heaves and huffs and puffs, but never inspires laughter—only confused boredom.

Frears directed one of my favorite comedies, High Fidelity, which was co-written by Lay the Favorite’s writer D.V. DeVincentis. Neither filmmaker is on point with this mush. It’s especially depressing for Frears, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director fairly recently, in 2006 for The Queen. It was his second nomination. The first came in 1990 for the outstanding The Grifters. What attracted Frears to this movie is anybody’s guess, since based on his filmography and upcoming projects (including a Freddie Mercury biopic starring Sacha Baron Cohen), he has no shortage of work.

Why Willis chose to star in this is equally mysterious. The constantly-working superstar was in half a dozen films last year, including well-received turns in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Rian Johnson’s sci-fi stunner Looper. Behind the scenes, Favorite was one of two films Willis starred in that featured the involvement of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and his production company, Cheetah Vision. The other was the direct-to-video Fire with Fire. Incidentally, Willis’ association with Jackson began in 2011 with another direct-to-video thriller, Set Up.

Blu-ray specs are solid, with a 1080p transfer that adequately presents Favorite’s digital cinematography. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio is nothing to shout about, but it gets the job done perfectly well. Extras are lacking, with only a handful of deleted scenes as a special feature. I was initially surprised that this film didn’t receive a wide theatrical release, given all the talented people who created it. But after watching the shorter-than-it-feels, 94-minute film, I could easily understand why this one was reserved for home video. The big names in the cast should capture some solid rental business, but Lay the Favorite is a tough one to recommend even to die hard Bruce Willis fans (no pun intended).

Lay the Favorite is available on Blu-ray and DVD March 5, 2013.

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