6 out of 10
Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers
Bashir Salahuddin as Detective Summerville
Directed by Paul Feig
A Simple Favor Review:
Filled to the gills (and then some) with plot twists and potboiler mainstays, A Simple Favor features some stellar work from director Paul Feig and his leading ladies Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. And yet for all its frequent delights it’s ultimately another unfortunate entrant in the list of mediocre films Blake Lively (in particular) is very, very good in. What could have been a breezily fun bit of trash fiction (far harder to do than it sounds) is lost in enough plot twists, red herrings and muddled tone to would make a Lifetime Movie of the Week blush (but never does). Instead we’re left with a 120-minute real-time view of a film slowly but surely getting away from its director and his desperate efforts to wrench it back.
The premise is just right for the genre. Perfect homemaker Stephanie (Kendrick, doing her best Midwestern charm) volunteers for everything and never shirks a responsibility, so of course she says yes when her best friend Emily (cool as a cucumber Lively) asks her to pick up her son after school. As an afternoon stretches into days, and then weeks Stephanie starts to question how much she really knows about her best friend (who she has just met 2-3 weeks prior). She’s not getting much help from Emily’s husband Sean (Golding) who seems keen to move on with whatever woman is nearby
There are real deaths, fake deaths, identical twins, triplets and incest. There is so much packed into A Simple Favor it should be impossible for it to be dull. Impossible to make sense of, sure, but not dull. And yet it becomes so, slowly but surely, transforming an engaging opening into a prolonged act of watch-checking. [At a certain point, long before the credits roll, you will most definitely stop caring who did what to whom; that will not stop the movie from telling you, no matter what] None of this is the fault of the actors who are trying their damndest with some frequently strong material from screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (adapting Darcey Bell’s novel). Lively is the standout, primarily because she has the best character. Emily lets her be aggressive, dismissive, confident, insecure, homicidal and loving all at once – not mention a dazzling array of three-piece suits – and Lively dives into the part without hesitation.
The fact that the plot requires her not to be around for long periods could be a real issue if Kendrick weren’t up to the challenge of carrying the story whenever she’s not on screen. Sure, she’s nominally the main character but Stephanie spends more time watching things happen than engaging in them – at least for a good long while. It’s Emily’s disappearance which finally spurs her out of her kitchen and her homemaker vlog and out into the world to get some idea what’s been happening. Pluckiness is certainly in Kendrick’s wheelhouse and if Stephanie isn’t quite Emily’s bundle of contradictions she’s got her complications and watching her embrace them as she comes into her own is almost as much fun as watching Lively tear an over anxious fashion designer down to size. Almost.
And if that was all that A Simple Favor was interested in – looking into these two women and the way they are almost as alike as they are different, the strangeness of a real friendship – a lot of its problems would never have shown up. But at the end of the day this is a potboiler and it is very hard to make a potboiler (by its nature extremely plot heavy) into a character study – or even to give it some of the attributes of one. The fact that Feig is able to make the opening so engaging speaks volumes to his skill with his actors. From the opening credits with their post-modern Saul Bass feel and French pop-song backing like a 60s Cote d’Azur thriller mixed with a Doris Day musical, A Simple Favor promises something different from what he has made before and flirts with delivering but only to pull back again and again.
Feig has no problem delving into the darkest recesses of his character’s pasts – from incest to arson to drug use – but whenever things get too heavy he pulls back and makes with a joke. Sometimes it works and sometimes it undermines what’s going to come to next as he attempts to raise the stakes he has just whittled down. Gradually, frustratingly, unfailingly, it all gets away from him. Interesting character beats, theoretically motivating the leads’ actions, are left dangling with little to know connection to the wider story as the plot takes over. At the same time motivations become less clear again as the plot takes over forcing characters to behave almost arbitrarily in order to hide surprises from the audience, a confusion made worse as point of view bounces among the leads. We’re expected to follow Stephanie’s dalliance with newly widowed (maybe?) husband Sean (a terminally underused Golding) one moment and deplore it the next more to motivate the next plot discovery than for anything character related. Characters are on the run from the law and desperately hiding except for when they are playing tricks on their ex’s because they can. And when any of that fails (or even if it doesn’t) then everyone can fall back on a joke and a promise that ‘we’re just kidding.’
It feels like nothing so much as a director deciding each day to try things a different way and then trying to jam it all together in the editing room. It’s a shame. There’s a lot to like about A Simple Favor. Just not enough.