Christine Westwood reviews Stephen Frear’s Lay the Favourite, out today, and reports on the press conference of the film that was held at the Sundance Film Festival.

The biggest names, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bruce Willis and Vince Vaughan, didn’t make it but the rest of the cast were out in force to support Stephen Frears’ latest feature Lay the Favourite at the Sundance Film Festival 2012.

Within a few days, Hollywood Reporter (29 Jan 2012) confirmed that the Weinstein company had bought distribution rights for the movie at just over $2 million.

At a press conference in the Bing Bar on Main Street, Park City, Rebecca Hall, Joshua Jackson, Corbin Bernsen and Laura Prepon spoke glowingly about their experiences of working with the British director who, during 18 years of making feature films, brought a slate of award winning movies including My Beautiful Launderette (1985), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Queen (2006) and Tamara Drewe (2010).

Lay the Favourite is based on the real life Wizard of Oz story of Beth Raymer (played by Hall), a stripper from Tallahassee who goes to Las Vegas in search of a glamorous life. Instead, she stumbles into working for Dink (Willis) as a bookmaker’s assistant and is plunged into the complex, crazy world of illegal gambling.

The film style is clean and vivid, befitting the almost cartoon characters that this particular Dorothy encounters on the way. This is one of areas where the film mostly but doesn’t always pull it off. Willis and Zeta Jones create characters of the warring married couple Tulip and Dink that are hard to see as more than caricatures. Perhaps their big name status makes us too aware that we are watching something constructed from tics and outrageous foibles, or maybe the shallowness and fakery are incredible but true.

By contrast, New Jersey actress Laura Prepon is believable as Holly, the LA girl who befriends Beth, while Vaughan is suitably psychotic as Dink’s arch-rival Rosie. Jackson does a fair job of being the only ‘normal’ anchor in Beth’s life, the boyfriend who becomes embroiled in a dangerous world, and who stands by Beth as she picks him up and dumps him on her various schemes and pursuit of money and the career she finds herself so oddly fitted for. His long-suffering character would also verge on the unbelievable except Jeremy becomes the real life Beth’s husband and supports her in writing the book that the film is based on.

In some ways this Las Vegas gambling underworld is a strange theme for Frears who himself admits that the subject matter was out of his sphere of knowledge. In the end the film rests on whether your taste is for the hyper-real, crazy and complicated world of criminal gamblers. If so, enjoy the ride.