Lay The Favourite (Favorite)

Casting Rebecca Hall as bubbly babe Beth, who jumps into professional sports betting in Vegas only to find the personal stakes sky-high, this good-natured but tinny coming-of-age comedy-drama is more of an also-ran than a sure thing.

After the lacklustre Chéri and uneven Tamara Drewe , Stephen Frears seems to be in something of a slump, and his giddy, surface-skimming adaptation of Beth Raymer’s memoir about her trajectory from stripper to bookie isn’t reversing the trend.

With Beth at eccentric betting agency Dink Inc, the film works overtime to paint volatile Dink (rueful Bruce Willis) and his sidekicks as lovable Runyon-esque types, who embrace our quick-witted heroine as a long-legged lucky charm.

Too bad writer D.V. DeVincentis ( High Fidelity ) can’t make bookmaking look as nail-bitingly tense as Moneyball made sports stats, or as coolly comic as Get Shorty ’s take on loan-sharking.

Hobbled by a platonic romance with Dink that gets Beth hired and fired, the film slips awkwardly from likeable if broad comedy into unlikely drama, as her illegal New York operation threatens her with prison and poverty.

As the film struggles to infuse wafer-thin characters with pathos, you yearn for the dark lessons learned in The Grifters , or The Queen’s adroit switches from teasing humour to sudden sadness.

There’s a hint of the light and shade that’s missing in the subtle bond glimpsed between Willis’ uxorious Dink and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ high-handed wife Tulip.

But Vince Vaughn’s blowhard rogue bookie and Joshua Jackson’s barely there boyfriend feel like sketches. Hall’s ditsy, straight-talking Beth keeps the film aloft, showing off nimble comic chops that her nervy, uptown turns in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Please Give never hinted at.

Flaunting Daisy Dukes and a cock-eyed optimism in a business where “being nice is just another racket”, her high spirits are the really winning feature in this otherwise rather average bet.

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