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Dale Robinette

Like many a gambling movie, "Lay the Favorite" is peppered with gambler slang, starting with the title.

But here's movie slang that works just as well.

"On the nose," as in casting Bruce Willis as Dink, a Vegas sports gambler whose sophisticated operation tracks and manipulates casino odds on an event.

"On the nose" refers to Vince Vaughn as Rosie, a manic, motor-mouthed devil-may-care New York bookie who works just outside of the law.

Equally on the nose? Casting Joshua ("Dawson's Creek") Jackson as a straight-arrow journalist.

And "casting against type?" That would be Rebecca ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") Hall as a Southern-fried sexpot. Beth is a "private dancer" from Tallahassee who packs up her boots, tube tops and Daisy Dukes and flees to Vegas with dreams of being a - wait for it - cocktail waitress.

But casting on the nose generally means you're playing it too safe, betting that the audience won't mind the lack of surprises.

Of course, when you cast the normally prim and smart Hall as a seemingly naive "good girl" who quits dirty dancing only to throw herself at her much-older married boss (Dink), you're asking for trouble.

Not that "Lay the Favorite" is totally her fault. The script, based on a gambling memoir by Beth Raymer, can't make up its mind who Beth is. She's Florida Panhandle Southern - without an accent. She's clueless, but supposedly some sort of numbers savant. She's innocent. Until you take a look at what she wears, and the brazen moves she puts on Dink.

Beth's "real" romance, with the reliable Jeremy (Jackson) is like trying to start a Vegas limo with a dead battery. No spark.

Those of us who love gambling movies - the slang, the horse track or blackjack table "characters" - are given just a hint of those grizzled old non-actors in a single scene.

Hall is easy on the eyes, but she and the script she struggles over don't make that a hold card we're the least bit interested in gambling on.


Lay the Favorite

** 1/2

• Rated: : R for language throughout, some sexual content, brief drug use, and nudity.

• Director: Stephen Frears.

• Cast: Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones Vince Vaughn, Joshua Jackson.

• Running time: 94 minutes.