Lay The Favorite
Video-on-demand has turned into an outlet for some of the most exciting films releasing today. While faux-"important" movies rage through the multiplexes (it is Oscar season, after all,) invigorating efforts like "Bachelorette," "Goon," and "The Loneliest Planet" have been premiering on cable, often upwards of a month before their extremely-limited theatrical releases. But for every quality film that finds a home on-demand because it’s too wild and audacious for wide consumption, there’s ten films released on-demand because they’re not even worth the cost to ship them to theaters. Lay the Favorite, unfortunately, belongs in the latter category.
"Lay..." poses as a memoir by Beth Raymar (Rebecca Hall) - a troubled young Valley Girl who, thanks to the caring interests of a sports gambler (Bruce Willis), learns about herself and finds her calling in life and so on and so forth - but it’s closer to a big budget Lifetime movie. Just about all the worst clichés of direct-to-video filmmaking are here; as if it were marking them off from a checklist.
We have a menagerie of slumming-it stars - many of whom show up on only a few sets, clearly having worked on the film for no more than a couple of days (Vince Vaughn, as a rival gambler, and Joshua Jackson, as Hall’s love interest, probably appear for a combined total of about 12 minutes.) We’ve got lifeless direction, courtesy hack-for-hire Stephen Frears. We have, also courtesy Frears, the bright and overlit visual sheen of a Mexican soap opera. Hell, "Lay" even has Catherine Zeta-Jones, and I dare you to remember the last good movie she was in.
But, thankfully, we also have Bruce Willis. And strangely, as often as Willis phones these performances in (he does a number of direct-to-video features yearly; many of them with presumed friend 50 Cent,) he actually seems to give a shit about this one. His character does get the films sole interesting conflict - torn between a loveless marriage with Catherine Zeta-Jones and the chance of starting a different loveless marriage with Rebecca Hall - and perhaps he was relishing in the zeal of not having to play a generic tough guy for once. Whatever the reason, there’s a true sense of melancholic longing to the way he treats Hall; the way he tortures himself by befriending her even after he knows it can’t work out as anything more.
But he’s less the saving grace than he is the sole bright spot. Everything else here ranges from the atrocious to the "my God, how did they release this?" And that’s before the film concludes in a 90s-sitcom-style dance-along. This, and the rest of its kind, is the reason video-on-demand films are treated like second-rate entertainment. Some of the pictures I mentioned earlier are better than just about anything else playing in theaters today. But, even from the comfort of your own home, this wouldn’t be worth your time, much less your $7.99 plus tax.