Tepid ‘Lay the Favorite’ just lies there

The fact that it’s based on a true story gives “Lay the Favorite” a touch of interest; the plot is incredibly unlikely, so at least we can marvel at the fact that it really happened.

Unfortunately, the movie has thin appeal. It’s adapted from a memoir by Beth Raymer, who apparently had some crazy times in the field of betting and bookmaking. Beth is played by Rebecca Hall, the remarkable young English actress who vanishes here into the body of an all-American ditz.

After a brief career in exotic dancing, Beth treks to Las Vegas, where she is hired by a bookie named Dink (Bruce Willis). A head for numbers allows her to flourish, for a while, as she places calls, delivers cash payouts, and develops a crush on Dink.

The crush turns out to be a dead end, as Dink is devoted, in his own morose way (Willis looks depressed throughout), to his wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

You keep waiting for something lively to happen between Willis and Zeta-Jones, but like so much else about “Lay the Favorite,” this potentially fun movie couple just fizzles out.

The plot turns to New York City and Curacao (evidently the Caribbean island offers opportunities for the discreet gambler), and the cast includes Vince Vaughn as a boastful bookie and Joshua Jackson as Beth’s surprisingly responsible new boyfriend.

“Lay the Favorite” is directed by Stephen Frears, the veteran British filmmaker who’s had his share of gems (“The Queen,” “High Fidelity”) but more than a few misfires. Frears has the outsider’s eye for a certain kind of American goofiness, but it’s hard to see what else appealed to him about this mild, playful comedy.

Even when a lot of money is riding, very little seems at stake. We’re told danger lurks at various moments, but given the casual style and the laid-back performances by Willis &Co., it’s tough to get worked up about anything.

Maybe Frears was interested in guiding Rebecca Hall in an out-and-out slapstick turn; if so, he’s encouraged a very broad performance. The tall, lanky Hall was terrific in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “The Town,” and in this movie she shifts gears from her thoughtful past.

Apparently channeling Goldie Hawn or Judy Holliday, Hall completely commits to this eternally cheerful optimist. She is a very appealing actress, but she’s so over the top here you may get annoyed by Beth when you’re supposed to be enchanted by her.

“Lay the Favorite” (2 stars)

A former exotic dancer (Rebecca Hall) is hired by a Vegas bookie (Bruce Willis) and has a variety of very mild adventures. It’s based on a true story, which is more interesting than the tepid movie itself. Stephen Frears directed.

Rated: R for nudity, language.

Showing: Sundance.

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