Review: 'A Simple Favor'

Thursday, September 13, 2018
A still from 'A Simple Favor'.

The Lady Vanishes

2018 / USA / 117 min. / Dir. by Paul Feig / Opens in wide release Sept. 14, 2018

by:
Andrew Wyatt

A Simple Favor is a weird film, tonally speaking. It’s not the first foray into more bloody-minded fare for comedy-inclined director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids [2011]; Spy [2015]; Ghostbusters [2016]). Before breaking out as one of the 2010s’ few mainstream comedy filmmakers with name recognition, Feig was a television director for series ranging from his own creation Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) to the U.S. version of The Office (2005-13). Most salient to his newest film, however, are his stints helming the Showtime series Weeds (2005-12) and Nurse Jackie (2009-15), both of which could be described as character studies with dark-comedy flavoring, built on the framework of well-worn genres (the narco thriller and the hospital drama, respectively).

Feig’s latest feature isn’t exactly comparable to his work on those acclaimed shows. A Simple Favor is at its most successful when it’s foremost a rat-a-tat dark comedy and only secondarily a character piece or twisty noir. Still, the point stands that the director has a proven facility for maintaining a tricky, gestalt tone. On a more high-concept level, Feig has previously used varying tactics to blend comedy with flashier, bigger-budget stripes of entertainments. Spy approaches its cloak-and-dagger elements playfully but earnestly – it’s a solid 007-style actioner that just happens to also be a gut-busting satire – while Ghostbusters is essentially a big-hearted gal-pal comedy that takes place in a cartoonish sci-fi universe.

A Simple Favor represents yet another approach, one that is enticing in concept but decidedly strange in the execution. At the plot level, the film is a nasty, corkscrewing domestic noir, the sort replete with fakeouts, frame-ups, and double-crosses. Sketched out on paper in its entirety, the story looks an awful lot like one of Alfred Hitchcock’s seedier “criminal mischief” films (Shadow of a Doubt [1943]; Strangers on a Train [1951]; Dial M for Murder [1954]; Marnie [1964]). There’s also more than a dollop of trashy, early 1990s thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and Single White Female (1992).

What’s eccentric about A Simple Favor, however, is that this mystery plot takes place in the broad, R-rated reality that is now a mainstay of 21st-century multiplex comedies. Unlike Spy, Feig’s latest is emphatically not a satire, although it does have a touch of smug genre self-awareness. (“Are you Diabolique-ing me?” a character indignantly demands at one point.) The deceptions, betrayals, and murders that stud A Simple Favor are presented with mortal seriousness, but the characters’ reactions to the sordidness and violence around them are routinely sitcom-glib. It’s a novel approach, one adjacent to that of Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) and Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), but distinctly pricklier and frostier. Unfortunately, Feig doesn’t blend the wisecracking and the bloody betrayals together as seamlessly as the aforementioned filmmakers; A Simple Favor sometimes shudders as its gears audibly change.

Which isn’t to say that the film is a failure. Far from it: A Simple Favor is a semi-precious gem of a film, the sort of stylish, grownup mystery that’s somewhat out of fashion in Hollywood these days. It’s a feature that enthusiastically embraces the red-meat elements of the genre, from the suspicious life-insurance policy to the pearl-handled pistol secreted inside a purse. A Simple Favor is also very much a star vehicle, in the sense that one cannot envision the film being even remotely as enjoyable with different lead actors. Not to diminish Feig’s direction or screenwriter Jessica’s Sharzer’s razor-sharp dialogue, but the success of the film hinges on two flawless casting choices.

The first is Anna Kendrick in the role of heroine Stephanie Smothers, a widowed “mommy vlogger” who streams how-to videos on gluten-free brownies and friendship bracelets from her immaculate kitchen in suburban Connecticut. Enthusiastic and Instagram-perfect, Stephanie is the sort of chirpy, somewhat dorky Type A character at which Kendrick excels. A Simple Favor exploits this seeming typecasting to slowly reveal the darker smudges in Stephanie’s persona, allowing Kendrick to stretch in ways she hasn’t since her early turn as overachieving adolescent shark Ginny in Rocket Science (2007).

The film’s other casting masterstroke is Blake Lively as Stephanie’s new “mom friend” Emily Nelson, a deliriously chic, acid-tongued blond goddess who works in NYC as a publicist for a narcissistic perfume and fashion mogul (Rupert Friend). Lively has transmuted herself into one of Hollywood’s more intriguing under-40 actresses in recent years, repurposing her lithe physicality and numinous California Girl aura in an idiosyncratic string of films (Savages [2012]; The Age of Adaline [2015]; The Shallows [2016]) since her tenure on the CW’s Gossip Girl ended in 2012. A Simple Favor provides her with the opportunity to go full femme fatale, strutting about in a succession of jaw-dropping outfits while exuding a magnetic, sinister inscrutability.

Obliged to socialize when it’s discovered that Stephanie’s 5-year-old son Miles (Joshua Satin) is friends with Emily’s son Nicky (Ian Ho), the women quickly establish an unlikely bond over gin martinis and uncensored girl talk. Truth be told, Stephanie is more than a little envious of Emily’s lifestyle: her expensive modernist home, her impossibly fashionable wardrobe, her high-powered career in the city, and her hunky novelist-cum-professor husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding). Most of all, Stephanie envies Emily’s aggression, frankness, and refusal to apologize for anything. The women are similar in some respects – both are outgoing and self-assured in their way – but also high-contrast opposites, like living personifications of the dishonest Supermom vs. Career Bitch binary sold to many middle-class women.

One day Emily calls Stephanie to ask for a favor: Sean is in the U.K. visiting his bedridden mother, so could she please pick up Nicky after school and watch him for a while, just until Emily can put out some fires at work? Stephanie agrees, of course, but as the evening rolls on with nary a call or text from Emily, it’s apparent that something is amiss. Soon Sean is rushing back home to file a missing-person report with the police, whose initial suspicion is that Emily has fled into the arms of another man. Stephanie has her doubts about this, so she repurposes her vlog for a “Find Emily” campaign, using her subscribers to create a nationwide dragnet for tips on her friend’s whereabouts.

Privately, however, things start to get a little hinky, as Stephanie smoothly assumes the roles of surrogate mom to Nicky and consoling friend – perhaps more than a friend – to the distraught Sean. Soon enough she’s preparing picture-perfect meals for them in Emily’s stunning kitchen and giddily rifling through the countless outfits in Emily’s cavernous walk-in closet. Eventually, Sean receives the news that he was fearing: A car rented in Emily’s name has been found at the bottom of a lake, along with a fish-nibbled corpse. In the eyes of the genial, Columbo-esque police detective (Bashir Salahuddin) who keeps dropping by, Stephanie’s eager, perhaps unconscious colonization of Emily’s life now looks especially suspicious. However, what truly throws a monkey wrench into Stephanie’s nascent domestic bliss with Sean is Nicky’s bizarre claim that he recently spoke to his mom on the playground at his school. Is Emily truly gone? Given that Lively is only onscreen for about 30 minutes before vanishing from the film, despite receiving second billing, the answer seems obvious, although the film has far more twists up its sleeve than a mere character-death fakeout.

None of those twists are exactly original, however, and several of them are at once tediously predictable and downright soap-opera ludicrous. A Simple Favor is an archetypal example of a film with a trite, trashy thriller plot that still manages to be exceedingly enjoyable. It’s not so much a guilty pleasure as a “Why Not?” experiment, as though Feig melted down Laura (1944) and decanted it into the Bridesmaids mold just to see what would happen. With the exception of Lively’s lusciously vulpine performance, the film doesn’t have the cheek to unabashedly revel in its own trashiness, preferring to simply look on in amusement as Emily’s illicit past is unearthed and the betrayals start to pile up to a dizzying height. Still, it’s plain that Feig is having a lot of fun, even if his direction never exudes the same drunken delight as Jefferson Sage’s spot-on production design or Renne Ehrlich Kalfus’ absolutely stellar costumes.

For all its salacious skullduggery, A Simple Favor is more of a black comedy than a sensual psychological thriller. As the film’s alluring Woman in Trouble, Lively leaves a scorching erotic trail through the film, but she also holds her own in witty banter with her co-star, often deliberately stepping on Kendrick’s lines in a languorous and faintly menacing way. Kendrick, however, is the film’s MVP, delivering a marvelously exacting performance. As usual, she shines in the mode one might term “clumsy romcom heroine,” which obliges her to elicit schlimazel pathos without losing her sexy sparkle. Here, however, she punctuates Stephanie’s perky energy with self-effacing jokes and nervous demurrals to suggest murky depths. A less sophisticated performer might have implied simmering resentments, but Kendrick renders her character’s secret side as active rather than reactive — a cunning bird of prey, its eyes glittering with lust and avarice. As Emily’s guileless husband, Golding is his usual bland, dreamy self, which winds up being an asset in a film that is overwhelmingly focused on the personalities of its leads.

Apart from Kendrick and Lively, the film’s principal strength is Sharzer’s excellent adaptation of Darcey Bell’s original novel. A Paul Feig joint can very easily descend into a shaggy hangout film, but Sharzer’s screenplay constrains the director in the best possible way, keeping the proceedings crackling along in fine noir fashion. That this is a 2018 studio comedy at heart rather than a classical throwback is apparent in some distinctly Feig-ish characters, particularly Linda Cardellini’s whiskey-chugging punk-rock artist and a Greek chorus of neighborhood parents (Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla) who serve up deadpan snark at the lurid misfortune unfolding around them.

Like all of Feig’s recent features, A Simple Favor is centered on women’s experiences, and it smuggles in some trenchant critiques of society’s unreasonable, no-win expectations for mothers, as well as the submissive social tics that women routinely adopt to navigate the patriarchy. (Stephanie’s inability to stop apologizing for herself is a running gag that becomes more caustic than charming as the film rolls on.) As in Gone Girl (2014), the film’s feminist ethos is debatably undercut by its amoral, scheming female characters, but A Simple Favor is ultimately much more of a juicy showcase for its lead actors than a fist-pumping celebration of womanhood. And rightly so, since no one learns lessons in a properly trashy noir: They just get more cynical or very dead.

Rating: B-