The opening title of Stephen Frears’ gambling comedy, Lay the Favourite proudly proclaims: “As luck would have it, this story is true”. That five second moment of pre-game relief is as far as your luck will stretch with this one though, as it’s a light-hearted, but truly mystifying jaunt down a cul-de-sac of comprehensibility.
Beth (Rebecca Hall) is sassy and funny and an ex-stripper; she wears really tight little shorts and she’s heading to Las Vegas to seek her fame and fortune, and she’s great with numbers!
Dink (Bruce Willis) is a professional gambler; he wears some big socks and shouts at television screens all day. He makes money somehow doing something with lines and odds and professional sports, and he hires Beth because apparently she’s some sort of gambling prodigy, that and he’s cute and fun and sassy.
Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is Dink’s wife. She stamps around in flip-flops looking a little bit like a man in drag; she scowls because she feels threatened by Beth, plus Dink thinks she might be a bit of a jinx on his gambling business, which she might be, if anybody had the common sense to explain what it is he does in his office all day besides squealing repeatedly at footage of horses.
Rosie (Vince Vaughn) does something similar to Dink, but in New York. He doesn’t actually explain what he does either, but he uses words like ‘epic’ and ‘vortex’ and wears a tracksuit and carries big piles of cash around with him, so it’s obviously a real money-spinner.
Frears has had success in the past with perky, upbeat comedy dramas, but it’s an unremarkable and unsatisfying web of romance that’s being spun here. At no point is the mysterious world of sports gambling made even slightly coherent for the lay-person. It’s a garbled mess of jargon that renders whole scenes feeling like they’re being acted out in a foreign language.
When Dink’s business hits a rocky patch he trashes his office and, when Beth tries to calm him, aggressively asks her if she really knows anything about his business at all? The answer of course is no, nobody does. Nobody has the faintest idea what on earth is going on.