Film critic Scott Wilson reviews the glamourous, gossiping, gruesome A Simple Favour.
A Simple Favour – ★★★☆☆
Director Paul Feig has made a living from casting women to do all the fun things guys have been doing for decades. It was him behind the riotous Bridesmaids and the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Spy. The all-female Ghostbusters remake was him too, flying in the face of men who felt having women bust ghosts would ruin their childhood. The same men were oddly quiet when The Happytime Murders, featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets doing drugs and having sex, came along last month with the sole intention of ruining childhoods, suggesting that whole debacle was less about branding and more about sexism, in case it needed clearing up.
Along with The Heat, this four-film run from Feig produced megabucks and just as many laughs. Having proven he knows how to manoeuvre comedy starring women – a genre often resembling an old boys’ club – he has something a little different in A Simple Favour. The outrageous laughs remain, but this has more in common with Hitchcock than The Hangover.
Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie Smothers is a suburban mum who loves her son, always first to volunteer and the likely head of any neighbourhood community groups. She runs a vlog where she talks to other mothers about domestic chores, typically food-related, while filling them in on the gossip from her life.
The gossip is that Blake Lively’s Emily Nelson, her new best friend, has disappeared.
Like Rosamund Pike blazing a trail in Gone Girl, Lively and Kendrick totally amplify A Simple Favour’s madness, in which there is very little of what could be considered simple.
Bonding after their kids have a play date, the conservative Stephanie is pulled out of her shell by the adventurous Emily, a liberal drinker and naturally alluring. Questions about what she does for a living are deflected, until one day she never comes back, prompting Stephanie to do some digging.
Emily’s house is Instagram-ready, all windows and minimalist. Walk-in closets and provocative art make Stephanie fall in love with it, seduced by Emily and the life she leads, whatever that is. The house is custom-made for someone like Stephanie to want to spend time there, living vicariously through her cooler, freer best friend, reporting back to her audience as if she is the exciting one.
If A Simple Favour achieves one thing, it is in championing Blake Lively’s film-star credentials. Leading roles in The Age of Adaline and The Shallows served her well, but here she rocks an enviable wardrobe, turns heads when she walks into a room, and subtly builds Emily’s world under a stoic sheen. When it all gets a bit bonkers – boy does it get bonkers – she fits every mask, victim and villain, friend and foe. A Simple Favour gets out of her way and lets her show off, and what emerges is something timeless, welcome in any era of Hollywood. She is extraordinary and the biggest crime will be if nothing comes of it.
Kendrick can only play catch-up to what Lively is doing, but with Zoey Deutch having stolen Kendrick’s shtick, this is a nice change of pace for her. Here, she is sorta (deliberately) irritating, her pristine soccer mom persona nothing like Pitch Perfect’s affable Bela or Up in the Air’s go-getting Natalie. It works perfectly – she is exactly the kind of person to go snooping where perhaps she shouldn’t, her noisiness altogether more effective than any investigation ever could be.
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Where films like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train – A Simple Favour’s more serious siblings – would ponder over the meaning of one clue for ten minutes, in that space of time Stephanie discovers something, acts on it, reflects, and vlogs – it is breakneck. In its twists and turns there is melodrama and odes to soap operas; in its jaw-dropping fashion sensibilities there are nods to film noir and femme fatales; in its comedy there is that familiar wit of Feig, this time coming up against a more serious tone, a well-timed punch to the penis punctuating the tension after a particularly volatile confrontation.
Not to say it always works. Lively has the better role, free to disappear into Emily’s mystique, while Kendrick’s Stephanie is left with something more questionable. The character works fine as a busy-body – I totally bought someone like this would go snooping – so to add in a particularly icky backstory feels superfluous, as if to add an additional edge the film doesn’t require.
That aside, it never isn’t fun. Like Rosamund Pike blazing a trail in Gone Girl, Lively and Kendrick totally amplify A Simple Favour’s madness, in which there is very little of what could be considered simple. It isn’t dismissive to focus on outfits and aesthetic – this is one glamourous film, indulging in the pleasantries of the chic high life with a backdrop of something sinister. It isn’t a slight to compare it to soap operas, where exaggerated characters tap into a fantastical reality, enabling urges of everyday viewers to follow nefarious clues and consider sleeping with their pal’s sexy partner.
In its devotion to telling such a wild story, Feig has crafted something that again feels liberating. Helmed by two multi-faceted and loud female performances in colourful characters, A Simple Favour feels fresh, thrilling, and more than a little seductive.
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