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Extra Blu-Ray Pick Of The Week: Lay the Favorite

by Norm De Palma

A more or less entertaining portrait of the world of sports gambling.

In this 2012 comedy-drama, Rebecca Hall teams up with Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Joshua Jackson to provide viewers a glimpse of the topsy-turvy world of sports gambling. Based on the memoirs of American writer and ex-stripper Beth Raymer, we follow the young Beth (Hall) as she travels from her humdrum Florida life to Las Vegas and New York City. There, she meets a whole crew of zany characters, from a smooth-talking professional gambler in Dink Heimowitz (Willis), Dink’s wife Tulip (Zeta-Jones), a journalist from New York called Jeremy (Jackson), and other names and faces that turn Beth’s life around.

The film starts off with a promising premise, as explained in detail by Indie Wire: Beth is an adventurous striptease dancer who decided to work as a cocktail waitress in Sin City, but it doesn't take long before she finds out that she has a talent for chance and numbers. There are more than a few moments of mentor-protege brilliance between Hall and Willis, and for a minute, the film manages to make gambling more exciting than what we imagine it to be.

However, one can't help but notice how thinly laid out the story is. After the expected banter, there’s Zeta-Jones cutting out the romantic tension between Beth and Willis, and suddenly another romance is afoot, this time with young writer Jeremy. Like Beth, we are not entirely sure where the plot is going, but at least there are some gags to entertain us along the way. Like in the criminally underwhelming Alita: Battle Angel, the movie is rife with good dialogue that would have worked if only the movie is given any semblance of a narrative to latch our attention to.

Until the end, there’s an uneven spread of witticisms, flirtations, and some sprinklings of sports gambling trivia. The plot isn’t really that hard to follow, but there isn’t enough momentum to push the viewers to want to continue. Not bad, but certainly not good either.

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But despite its imperfections, its depiction of the sports gambling world is, at the very least, accurate and believable. For instance, when Beth decides to go to New York from Las Vegas and continue her gambling career, it was made clear to us that the life she and Dink had in Vegas stays in Vegas. Doing otherwise would mean gambling with her very life. After all, sports betting is full of technicalities and controversy, which is why governments are careful when it comes to adopting and legalizing it. In the U.S., for instance, while gambling is legal under federal law, casino-style gambling is only legal in Nevada and Louisiana. In some Asian countries such as Vietnam, locals are not even allowed to gamble at all. ExpatBets published a guide on sports betting in Vietnam and explain that only foreigners are allowed to use the country’s gaming facilities, with some exceptions. In some areas in Indonesia, those caught in gambling activities are even caned. Therefore, when the movie moved from Nevada to New York, there is a noticeable change in tone. Beth, who used to play in plain sight, is now operating in a whole different environment in the Big Apple. It is this seriousness that adds some dramatic tension to this otherwise feel-good movie. Moreover, the fact that all this danger is based on real risks makes it all the more gripping.

Of course, while Beth gets herself into a lot of heat by the end of the movie, we have a feeling that it will all work out just fine in the end. It’s hard to say whether this is good or bad, but for all intents and purposes, the movie’s happy vibe is what makes it worth watching. Every other plot element has been put there to make the pay-off more satisfying. We could expect way more from this film, but if you’re a gambling enthusiast, a Bruce Willis fan, or just looking to kill some time, this underwhelming movie isn’t really that much of a bad choice in the grand scheme of things. Rent It.