Sometimes you can see exactly where a movie is aiming, and it's a deflating experience to feel the trajectory dip as it falls ever shorter, minute by minute.
Such is the case with Lay the Favorite, an increasingly desperate comedy that follows the kinda-true story of one young woman's adventures in the world of gambling. Rebecca Hall plays Beth Raymer, a Tallahassee exotic dancer who heads to Las Vegas for fame and fortune. There she meets professional gambler Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis) and takes a job with his sports book operation. Beth discovers she has a knack for oddsmaking, but Dink's wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones) doesn't like the new, perpetually half-dressed office girl.
So Beth sets out on her own and soon finds that gambling can be a nasty business indeed. Hall (The Town) can be a radiant screen performer, but she does herself no favors with this undercooked role. Willis seems barely interested, and Vince Vaughn once again plays Vince Vaughn in a supporting role.
Director Stephen Frears (The Grifters) likes to find the lighter side of sordid scenarios, and there's enough comic potential here to keep your hopes up: The film's degenerate gamblers wager on everything from beauty pageants to spelling bees. The dialogue can be funny and rather evocative, as when Beth threatens to stab a rival in the groin artery, then watch TV while he bleeds out.
But everything gradually collapses into unearned sentiment and painfully strained gambling metaphors. Too bad. Favorite looked like a winner there for a minute.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Both sides now."