Stephen Frears is something of an odd fellow as a director, and a rundown of his films offers little clue as to the method of his madness. Even considering diverse genres, most directors have some catch about them. Some have a certain visual style, others stick to things that let them play with multi-layered thematic content, and some simply become known for delivering characters through brilliant conversation. Frears is a little trickier, though fans can tell they are watching one of his films. He might well seem close to someone like Altman, focusing on the reality and delivery of theme possible in conversations, but Frears is actually more focused on the connections these conversations relate.
Whether it’s Dangerous Liasions, High Fidelity, or even the recent, woefully unknown gem Tamara Drewe, it isn’t the characters specifically that we’re after, it’s the multi-faceted combinations. It’s a difficult concept to relay simply, because you never feel like you’ve described it right, but it is something similar to the “webs of connections,” social media tries to sell us on. Sure, we’re focusing on certain characters, but the question is really, “What does this web look like as its own entity?” And, often, “how does inserting this new connection change the whole web?”
I throw all this out, because it doesn’t seem to be what Lay the Favorite is about at all, until it does, and that’s when the film finally gets moving.
Beth (Rebecca Hall) is a private dancer, but she has big dreams. She wants to be a cocktail waitress in Vegas. It’s a dream her father (Corbin Bernsen) supports fully. She isn’t there long when she is put in contact with Dink (Bruce Willis), a gambler of the highest order. It might pop into your mind that he’s a poker player, but Dink is a much more complicated machine than that. He bets the horses, sports, and just about anything else, and his operation involves daily runs to the casinos with piles of cash, and a lot of phone calls to offshore sports books.
Conveniently, Beth has a special head for numbers, and Dink takes a shine to her. He hires her to man the phones and make the occasional run to place a bet, and Beth finds, eventually, that she really likes the job, and the game. But, as Beth gets a foothold into Dink Inc., she gets a little too close with Dink, which doesn’t go over well with Dink’s wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
There are a lot of complications involved with running a massive gambling operation, even when it’s legal, and Dink doesn’t make things easier. A wonderfully realistic gambler, Dink is prone to wild thinking, mood swings, and rather compulsive action. Beth is soon out, with little direction, and she meets Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), and decides to start working for Rosie (Vince Vaughn), a shadier gambler out of New York. It’s all quite complicated.
When you lay it out, it doesn’t seem to go anywhere at all. Attractive woman gets mixed up with older high-stakes gambler, they have a bit of a falling out, problems arise, rescue, hilarity ensues. You throw in some laughs and wackiness, and you end up with some mild entertainment, but not much else.
That’s how Stephen Frears works, and to be honest, it’s pretty well the same summary for any of his films. But, when we get the chance to move beyond the characters, or along with them perhaps, and watch the twisting of the overall dynamic, the movie shows its heart, and its strength. Similar in many ways to not only The Snapper, but the other films connected to that one, the best moments aren’t simply analysis of any character, but of the web. In this case, we not only have Dink, but his employees and fellow gamblers, not to mention his wife, and the entire microcosm that gets turned upside-down when someone new walks in the door.
It’s far more upbeat than a lot of Frears’ efforts, and it isn’t exactly laugh-out-loud comedy, but it is the sort of close-knit investigation of how people work that drives all his films.
It’s also the sort of film that makes people question the workings of Hollywood and the movie machine. With this roster, how could this not be a major release? The film may be able to answer that, in its own peculiar way, because sometimes you get the right people together, and see what happens. As Dink and Beth often repeat, “It was never about the money.”
The audio and video quality are not the best you’re going to find, and understandably so, but there aren’t many problems with them either. For the nitpicky, it doesn’t seem that we’re coming through at the highest level of HD possibility. I’m not sure what’s behind that, having little info on the production, but it isn’t anything that distracts.
Unfortunately, the release only comes with deleted scenes as far as bonus features. On the plus side, they are actually some good scenes, and they’re worth watching. On the negative, that isn’t going to cut for those who are looking for treats with their purchase.
Below catch the trailer, and a slideshow. Don’t overlook this one. It’s not only a worthwhile and fun escapade, with some big names doing good work, it’s the kind of thing you’re going to check in with again every once in a while.
Deleted Scene: Beth & Holly at the Café