Adapting a true-to-life story is an enticing idea for producers, potentially delivering a product easier to market with broader appeal. Every so often something goes horribly wrong during the process and the result is a baffling dud. This couldn’t be a more apt description for Stephen Frears‘ excruciatingly dull Lay the Favorite.

Screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis grabs his first feature screenplay credit since High Fidelity, adapting Beth Raymer‘s memoirs. Despite the lifeless narrative on screen, the sparkling Rebecca Hall was somehow convinced to portray the lead. I’d expect this sort of career dip for Bruce Willis, Vince Vaughn or Catherine Zeta-Jones, but it as if the promising Hall did her best to replicate the real-life person with no guidance or constraint, making for a grating character despite her usual endearing personality.

After a stripping stint in her Florida home-town, Beth Raymer (Hall) heads to Las Vegas with dreams of being a cocktail waitress. In need of a first job, she hooks up with Dink (Willis), a professional gambler specializing in everything from sports to beauty pageants. There is a muddled, but mostly lifeless storyline involving Raymer overstepping her boundaries with Dink’s wife (Zeta-Jones) and Vaughn comes along eventually to play a slimier bookie.

If there was a reason this story needed to be told, it certainly didn’t come across here. The developing friendship between Willis and Hall’s characters, her contrived relationship with Joshua Jackson, a cheap third act bout of conflict involving John Carroll Lynch; there is never a moment where these through-lines deliver an ounce of palpable drama, with zero chemistry between each character.

Frears, surprisingly, employs little directorial creativity, matching the most mediocre of TV dramas, often planting the camera directly in front of his subject leaving little to marvel at visually. With the basic shambles of a gambling plot, one will be sorely disappointed if they hope to find the efficiency or style found in any of the Ocean’s films or the wit in The Sting.

Although Raymer is a newcomer to betting, after Willis briefly brushes past the actual mechanics, a few moments later she is practically running the business. Frustratingly, the audience is left in the dust. If any of the character moments landed this fault might have been forgiven and the forced comedy, mostly resulting in poking fun of Hall’s ditzy Southern demeanor, only makes things worse.

Put together in a vapid manner, Lay the Favorite is a by-the-numbers, hollow experience, only worsened by the dedication to this un-cinematic story. Star power should still warrant some sort of distribution, but don’t be tricked by this miserable misfire.

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Grade: D

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