When she first saw the posters, my girlfriend asked if we could go see the new film, A Simple Favor, as it seemed like a fun movie for her, even though she conceded that I might not like “a chick film.” I agreed to go, but honestly, I wanted to, mostly because the film stars Anna Kendrick, objectively the most beautiful woman on the planet (my girlfriend concurs). She’s a great comic actress (with some dramatic chops as well), and director Paul Feig has well-established bona fides in comedy (give or take an ill-advised remake I won’t mention). I’ll admit I’m not as familiar with Blake Lively’s work, but at worst we’re left with a 2-out-of-3-ain’t-bad situation for a great set of laughs.
Then I found out the film wasn’t meant to be a comedy, but a semi-serious noir thriller. More often than not I’d tap out at this knowledge, but again, for 2/3 of the above-the-line names, I knew they had range and flexibility outside of their comfort zone, and I was instead intrigued. Having finally seen the film, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if it is flawed, in some cases to an almost breaking point. But thankfully, the strength of the cast elevates A Simple Favor to the point where some of the more glaring plot holes can almost be forgiven.
One of the more common critiques of director Paul Fieg is that he has a habit of thrusting women to the forefront just for the sake of doing so, rather than giving them a proper motivation. He can also try too hard to pander to millennials. Both of those issues come to the fore in the form of Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick), a widow who runs a “mommy vlog” (gag me) and volunteers at the local elementary school (where other moms and the gay “dad/mom” talk behind her back because, catty), never lets her son Miles eat gluten, and has an “Oopsie Jar” for when people swear. Given the suburban Connecticut setting, she’s practically a Stepford Wife.
Contrasting her is Emily Nelson (Lively), a PR director for a fashion designer. She’s foul-mouthed, sexually liberated, a borderline alcoholic, and very much used to the finer things in life. Her son, Nicky, becomes fast friends with Miles, forcing her to interact with Stephanie, and the two become chums as well, mostly because Emily is amused by Stephanie’s passive, prudish, submissive nature. They trade drinks, secrets, and insults while the children play.
In lesser hands, both of these characters would be insufferable. But Kendrick and Lively play them to the absolute hilt, creating a yin and yang juxtaposition that has to be seen to be truly believed. They are quite possibly the best modern example of attracting opposites, each one commanding attention and chewing scenery with aplomb.
The film begins with Stephanie on her vlog, setting up Emily’s disappearance with a flashback to a few days previous, where they meet and become friends. One day, Emily asks Stephanie to pick Nicky up from school, but never shows up to collect him in the evening. Days later, it is clear that Emily has disappeared. Her employers haven’t heard from her, the other suburban parents gossip, and Emily’s husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians lead Henry Golding – his first two film roles coming a month apart) suspects that she’s gone on a bit of a lost weekend, as she is apparently wont to do.
Stephanie gets a tip from one of her viewers, briefly turning the film into a low-rent version of Searching, and Emily is discovered dead. I suppose that counts as something of a spoiler, but it happens before the midway point of the film, so anyone could guess that there’s more to this. Sharing a common grief, Stephanie and Sean begin a relationship of their own, and Stephanie moves in, combining the families.
The newfound joy is quickly interrupted by some spooky happenings. Nicky claims to have seen his mother at the playground. Stephanie cleans out Emily’s closet only to find it fully restocked hours later. The creep factor drives Stephanie to go sleuthing, digging up details of Emily’s past and uncovering the truth behind her disappearance and apparent demise.
Now, there’s an awful lot in this story that doesn’t make sense. I won’t spoil too much, but there are some major inconsistencies. For example, debt and money issues are prevalent throughout the film, but everyone involved does literally the exact opposite of what they should be doing to rectify them. Stephanie is a widow, and her husband’s life insurance money will run out in two years. Does she look into getting a job? Nope, MOMMY VLOG! There’s potential malfeasance related to Emily’s issues. Do the responsible parties lie low until the heat’s off? Of course not! Let’s just expose ourselves and our plots in broad daylight for some cheap revenge thrills! And again, without spoiling anything, the twist ending is so convoluted that it almost derails the entire film.
Still, I really liked this movie, and not just because I’m biased towards Kendrick and Feig. They truly do some excellent work here. As I’ve already mentioned, Kendrick and Lively form a terrific duo, playing off each other perfectly, and complementing the almost cartoonish shortcomings in each other’s characters. Screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (adapting Darcy Bell’s novel) creates some wonderfully sardonic dialogue, allowing for some really great pithy, dark humor to permeate the proceedings. Feig’s masterful directing touch brings out the best in his entire cast, and he operates within a really well-crafted upper crust socioeconomic framework.
As I said, there are myriad flaws, not the least of which is that the movie takes too many cues from other great thrillers of recent years, but doesn’t really add anything to the mix. This is Gone Girl by way of John Hughes in a lot of respects, and you could argue that sometimes Feig can’t decide if he wants to be making a comedy or a suspense film. But again, the pluses far outweigh the minuses, leaving us with a solid date film that you’ll absolutely love… if you don’t think about it too hard.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who’s your favorite femme fatale? What would it take to let an artist paint your vagina? Let me know!