A Simple Favor (2018)
What Happened to Emily?
Writer-director-producer Paul Feig certainly has a way with women. Just look at his female-fronted filmography — we’re talkin’ the 2011 comedy sensation Bridesmaids, the Melissa McCarthy-starring espionage-spoof Spy (2015), and the all-gal Ghostbusters reboot, which, despite its various criticisms, actually wasn’t too shabby. Keeping this in mind, I can see what drew Feig to A Simple Favor, a stylish mom vs. mom missing-woman-mystery that pits the dorky Anna Kendrick against the alluring Blake Lively, both of whom elevate the campy material. A Simple Favor has also been advertised as a ‘darker side’ of filmmaker Feig, who makes his departure from the comedy genre. This isn’t to say that this slick suburban neo-noir isn’t funny, quite the opposite, the film brimming with enough tongue-in-cheek humor and gleefully callous charm to blur the lines between dark thriller and self-aware satire.
The plot is far from simple. Anna Kendrick plays unlikely film noir protagonist Stephanie Smothers, a perky stay-at-home mommy vlogger who spends the bulk of her days showing her few thousand subscribers how to make killer dishes/ flashy arts and craft trinkets. The movie opens when Stephanie explains to her viewers (and the audience) that her best friend Emily (Blake Lively) has gone missing. The clock then winds backward to fill in the blanks, audiences quickly discovering that Stephanie, in reality, hasn’t got any friends; she’s a lonely widow who takes care of her young son Miles (Joshua Satine), and is so eager to please that she’s borderline insufferable, her overzealousness turning people off.
One day, when picking her kid up from his Connecticut grade school, Blake Lively’s ultra-glamorous Emily moseys into Stephanie’s life (in slow-mo no less) after stepping out of a Porsche dressed like a female version of Rich Uncle Pennybags. It turns out that their children, Miles and Nicky (Ian Ho), are playmates, Emily eventually inviting Stephanie over to her house for a cocktail, or four, whilst their tots muck about. Stephanie, of course, is fascinated by Emily’s über-posh lifestyle, and who wouldn’t be — she has a high-profile job working for a well-known New York fashion designer, Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), she’s married to a sexy British author, Sean Townsend (Henry Golding), and lives in an elegant showcase home, complete with a bizarre nude painting that spotlights her bush. Soon, the couple becomes best pals, spending their afternoons downing martinis and chitchatting; for Stephanie, the friendship gives her confidence and stability, while for Emily, Stephanie is someone whom she can rely on. It’s during these salty rendezvous that Emily gets Stephanie to reveal her deepest darkest secret (and boy is it a zinger), the scenes of the ladies simply just conversing having plenty of cheeky bite.
One casual afternoon, Emily calls Stephanie and asks her for ‘a simple favor.’ Without hesitation, Stephanie agrees to pick Emily’s son Nicky up from school. Things get suspicious, though, when Emily fails to show up that night to take her little boy home. After doing some mommy-detective digging — she hears rumors of Emily being in Miami for work and contacts her hubby Sean who’s in London with an emergency — Stephanie comes to the shocking realization that Emily has, in fact, vanished. And so, she takes it upon herself (with the aid of her social media followers) to search for her absent BFF, although Stephanie has no idea just how black and twisted her investigation will become.
Based on the 2017 novel of the same name written by Darcey Bell, which itself has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, and adapted by screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, Nerve (2016), A Simple Favor can sometimes feel a bit muddled, tonally speaking, the film switching between an old-fashioned female-centric romp to an inky-black whodunit. Either way, Feig throws more twists and turns at the screen than you’ll see in an entire season of Desperate Housewives (2004-12), these ranging from delightfully compelling to somewhat foreseeable — we’ve got a dead body in a lake, an eerie religious summer camp, a dilapidated mansion, and a whole bunch of devious deception, and that’s only just the tip of the iceberg, the stuff I can give away without getting into spoilers. With that said, Feig handles the mystery very well, building enough suspicion around each of the three central characters, mainly as Stephanie gets closer to Emily’s grieving spouse.
Performances are also stellar, chiefly the one-two punch of Kendrick and Lively who make one seriously delicious couple — I could honestly watch a weekly sitcom based around these two divas. Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect (2012), plays Stephanie with a twinkle in her eye, finding a nice balance between naïve, nifty and naughty, Kendrick forced to run the gauntlet of emotions and remain likeable throughout (which she does). Additionally, I love the way Feig uses Stephanie’s vlogs as a means of showing her altering mental state, the extra onscreen information (such as her climbing followers and comments) a nice, subtle touch. Similarly, the enticing Blake Lively, The Shallows (2016), plays on her cool-girl persona as the toxic, sharp-tongued Emily Nelson, Lively oozing with magnetism and power in her multifaceted role. Seeing the luscious ladies dressed in fabulous outfits — i.e. short skirts, body-hugging getups and sexy three-piece suits — designed by Renée Ehrlich Kalfus, Hidden Figures (2016), is an added bonus, too.
Support players are equally as vibrant. Henry Golding, the breakout star of Crazy Rich Asians (2018), shows his dynamic range as the enigmatic Sean Townsend, a struggling novelist who finds a new lease on life after his wife goes AWOL. Bashir Salahuddin, from Netflix’s GLOW (2017), is amusing as Detective Summervile, a doubting cop who’s wary of Stephanie’s every move and always seems to pop up at precisely the wrong moment, whilst Jean Smart, Youth in Revolt (2009), is great as Emily’s crazy boozed-up mother Margaret. Kelly McCormack, Killjoys (2017-18), Andrew Rannells, The Intern (2015), and comedian Aparna Nancherla steal all of their scenes as Stacy, Darren and Sona (respectively), a trio of judgy ‘moms,’ while it’s nice seeing Feig’s Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) alum Linda Cardellini play against type as Diana Hyland, a tortured artist Emily used to know back in the day.
Bolstered by a mix of contemporary and retro French pop songs that include the likes of Françoise Hardy, Saint Privat, Brigitte Bardot, and Serge Gainsbourg, and modish cinematography by DOP John Schwartzman, Seabiscuit (2003), A Simple Favor will make you crave a glass of bubbly and a warm croissant. While, sure, ‘sultry secrets in the suburbs’ has been done countless times before, but here, Paul Feig takes a familiar concept and makes it feel new, A Simple Favor a fun, soap-y guilty pleasure, the kind of wacky, tacky, razor-sharp film that mainstream cinema hasn’t seen in yonks. I’d say do yourself a ‘simple favor’ and book a date with these mischievous mommies today.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie