Synopsis – A SIMPLE FAVOR, directed by Paul Feig, centers around Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a mommy blogger who seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s (Blake Lively) sudden disappearance from their small town.
My Take – It’s been a while since mainstream filmmakers have managed to pull off an exciting mystery film, with 2014’s Gone Girl from director David Fincher, being the last one to hook us in a while with its tight story telling. However, on the heels of the financial success of director Tate Taylor‘s sub part The Girl on the Train adaption, comes yet another vanishing woman mystery, only this time it is helmed by Paul Feig, a filmmaker best known for directing female led comedy ventures like Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and Ghostbusters.
Thankfully, despite apprehensions, the film based on Darcey Bell’s best-selling novel, excellently performs its job of being engaging, interesting, full of drama, and providing those over the top punches of humor and thrill at the same time. The story itself feels like a well-designed integration to pull most audiences into the mix. While the marketing of the film definitely sells the film as a Gone Girl-esque film, with Blake Lively as the beautiful and enigmatic femme fatale and Anna Kendrick as the seemingly gullible and naive best friend, it does not parallel with the sheer creepiness of the David Fincher film, mainly because at its heart it’s really a dark comedy about a budding friendship between two polar opposite personality types, with the film’s cast being the solid pillar here, as watching Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively’s characters spar, both face to face and from afar, is definitely one of the most unadulterated joys of the year.
The story follows Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a widowed single mother, who loves to throw herself into after-school projects as if it was her duty, volunteering for any and all tasks her son Miles (Joshua Satine) requires. In her spare time she is also a full time mommy v logger where she provides cooking and shopping tips to moms everywhere. While the other school moms often end up mocking her energy and her little Miss Perfect type attitude, her life takes an interesting turn when she ends up meeting the mother of Miles’s best friend Nicky (Ian Ho) in the form of Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a hard-drinking enigma who refuses to let people take her photo with a heart attack-inducing severity that definitely helped make her the success she’s become.
Even though the mothers could hardly be more different, they appear to bond, as Stephanie clearly seeks love and inclusion, while Emily yearns for an escape from mounting bills and complacency. They’re the exact opposite of each other and yet identical just the same. Then one day Emily calls, explaining that things are crazy at the office and that her English husband, Sean (Henry Golding) had to fly on an emergency trip to London where his mother is sick, requesting Stephanie to do her a simple favor and pick her son up after school and give him something to eat, which she does so without hesitation.
But when dinnertime rolls around and Emily hasn’t shown up yet, Stephanie starts to get worried. The next morning, Stephanie takes the boys to school, without any word from Emily. Maybe she’s still putting out the latest fire caused by her incorrigible boss Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend)? Worried Stephanie calls Emily’s husband, Sean and a few hours later, the police launch a full-fledged investigation into Emily’s absence. As the police begin interrogating everyone about Emily’s mysterious disappearance, Stephanie also begins to question her knowledge of her supposed best friend. You can get close to her but you can never quite reach her. After all, how much can you really know someone? She’s like an enigma. Like a beautiful ghost and what if the person you thought you knew doesn’t even exist?
Hands down, this is easily one of my favorite films of the year. While the set-up is familiar as both films are based on books, that’s about where the similarities between Gone Girl and this film end, thankfully so. Where Gone Girl was cynical and often nasty, this one is more of its playful cousin, as director Paul Feig has crafted here a darkly funny and breezy romp that revels in its increasingly twisted reveals and gripping plot. Yes, the film is superbly plotted with a snazzy, Hitchcockian flair of murder, mystery, and double-crossing that twists, turns, circles back, then twists and turns some more. Where some in the literary world considered Bell’s novel convoluted, for example if Gone Girl was on steroids, however the film overcomes the more outrageous elements of the story and its larger-then-life characters by adding a fresh layer of dark humor throughout. Without a doubt, the film’s engaging characters are the stars of this mystery, each one having a deep, dark ravine that houses many secrets in it shadowy crevices.
These characters convoluted profiles are only strongly supported by the fantastic acting of the leading ladies. Here, director Feig, and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, return to Emily and Stephanie’s gin martini sessions throughout the film, and not just because the film is nearly always at its best when Lively and Kendrick banter, barefoot and tipsy. They’re a useful tool, a choice that prevents Emily’s early disappearance from cutting off the film’s most gripping element at the knees. It allows us to gradually reveal the thread that makes up both of these characters: Emily, an enigma by design, someone who wants no photographs taken of her and alludes to a shady, fantastic past; Stephanie, a woman who projects a convincing image of nice, normal motherhood, albeit in a quirky, overachieving way. She seems to be a sort of manic pixie dream mom, while Emily’s a rich, drunk take on Lively‘s Gossip Girl persona, if you will.
But both are far more complicated than they seem, and as Stephanie lets her guard down and Emily connects with the person behind the facade, they and their relationship become infinitely more compelling, thanks to Sharzer’s sharp screenwriting. Here, writer Sharzer who has previous written episodes of ‘American Horror Story’ manages to bring in never-ending twists and turns to keep you guessing as the story progresses. Even if you can predict future story elements, you have to appreciate how well it is set up. When it comes to mystery films, some elements are thrown in as twists and most of the time they make no sense and don’t have a natural reveal. Here, writer Sharzer adds clues and hints at the beginning that pay off later in the film, and they even play as character development for Stephanie.
While, the rabbit hole we fall down is one containing dark secrets as clichéd and outlandish as you would imagine from such a pulpy piece of genre writing. But the film, rather than take it all seriously like so many overwrought thrillers of its ilk, inject the bleakly nightmarish skeletons with the sort of amusingly playful fun that lets us get in on the joke. If this tone wasn’t calibrated to perfection we would have end up laughing at the film instead of with it, so credit all involved for keeping this balancing act above water. Whether it’s Bashir Salahuddin‘s Detective Summerville having the time of his life watching the soapy relationship drama unfolding before his eyes or Rupert Friend’s satirical Tom Ford shtick, every actor is on the same page. Among the film’s many surprises, the real surprise is just how funny it is.
Paul Feig is one of the only currently working comedic directors who knows how to get natural humor out of his actors, and while the film may look like a sleek and sexy mystery, but at its core it is a comedy, and is integrated to add levity to this dark mystery. It’s as if Feig saw Gone Girl and felt it was too serious and decided to make this film out of it. The film is funny and the jokes are often smart and clever. When it comes to a lot of R-rated comedies as of recent, the humor heavily relies more on shock value to be funny than actual genuine lines of dialogue. That is not the case here, as most of the jokes are stringed from the characters’ personalities and their interactions with each other.
If there’s a downside to the film it has to be how occasionally it loses its balance and treks farther into the soap opera territory. Much like modern day time, the film is not afraid to go into overboard themes to bring the entertainment. While some of these are well received, a few of these plot devices are a little too convenient or over the top to really not roll your eyes at. Fortunately, they do curtail these things better than most films, even though it does not escape the predictable nature that these devices make.
As mentioned above, the film’s biggest strength lies in its two winning lead performances from Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Their on-screen chemistry is perfect and their timing for wittiness is spot on. The two play well off each other and it is wonderful to see them both slowly change over the course of the film into almost entirely different characters. Kendrick is perfectly cast as the slightly anal, overly cute and innocent protagonist. It is wonderful to see her start out as we always see her in most of her films and slowly, almost unwillingly become a hard-boiled detective looking for the truth surrounding her new friends vanishing. While Lively plays the queen bee character to perfection. Here, she looks sexy, seductive, and mysterious and draws on her darker roots to bring out the alluring visage of her character.
Henry Golding too is perfect as the medium between the two, with his suave from Crazy Rich Asians still present, but the romantic aspect now replaced with darker skeletons. In smaller roles, Rupert Friend, Bashir Salahuddin, Andrew Rannells, Jean Smart and Linda Cardellini play their parts well. On the whole, ‘A Simple Favor’ is a deliciously sexy campy thriller that is incredibly well written, wonderfully directed, and contains some enormously fun performances.
Directed – Paul Feig
Rated – R
Run Time – 117 minutes