Paul Feig is a genius director responsible for numerous modern classic comedies including “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat” so naturally he had heads turning when it was announced he would be directing a mystery thriller for 2018. Billed as a project filmed from the “darker side” of the director, “A Simple Favor” challenges Feig to escape his pigeonholed genre and try his hand at something new. Based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Darcey Bell, “A Simple Favor” promised intrigue and suspense as a missing person’s case becomes personal for a stay-at-home mom. With several big names in the starring roles and a capable director behind the camera there was a lot of promise for this thriller, but does it live up to those expectations? I took a look for myself to have my say. This is my review of “A Simple Favor”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“A Simple Favor” stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers, a single mom whose husband and brother died in a tragic car accident leaving her to live off of the health insurance. To pass the time Stephanie has become an overzealous volunteer at her son’s elementary school and spends her free time hosting mommy vlog. When Stephanie’s son meets a new friend at school Stephanie meets the mother, Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a PR manager with an aggressive personality. The two bond over martinis during several play dates during which time Stephanie also meets Emily’s husband, author and professor Sean (Henry Golding). One day Emily asks Stephanie for a simple favor to pick up her son from school. Emily doesn’t return however causing both Sean and Stephanie to assume her missing and spark an investigation into her disappearance. When a dead body is found and a larger mystery begins to unfold Stephanie and Sean grow closer and the lines between lies and truth begin to blur.
“A Simple Favor” sports a simple cast with three main actors leading the charge, two of them among the brightest actresses of their generation. Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are astounding in this movie playing polar opposite characters who each demand attention every second they’re on screen. Blake Lively’s performance though is by far the most impressive and memorable. She plays Emily, a woman with a very aggressive personality who throws around sexual innuendos, swears and other colorful language like it’s going out of style and has no qualms with how people feel or perceive her. Lively oozes confidence in this role stealing every scene she’s in without necessarily chewing the scenery. She’s a perfect blend of badass, confidence and style who knows what she wants and knows how to manipulate people to get it. As we learn more about Emily in the wake of her disappearance Lively’s performance begins to include an aura of intrigue and mystery as flashbacks lead to realizations about Emily’s personality. She turns in some of the best one liners and she acts as the perfect opposite to Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie. Emily is someone we can never truly read no matter what she says or how convincing or sarcastic she tends to be. It’s an awesome character and one Lively pulls off incredibly well.
Anna Kendrick is the other side of that coin portraying Stephanie, the main focus of the film and a single mother who is living off of her husband’s insurance money while also embracing an overly positive personality. When she meets Emily it forces her to change, putting her in the middle of a damaged marriage with a best friend that is much more aggressive and open than she is who even teaches her a few lessons about standing up for herself. Kendrick shows her true talent though as Stephanie is forced to evolve as a person with Emily’s help and takes on the responsibility of uncovering the truth of her best friend’s disappearance all on her own. Kendrick strikes a balance between annoyingly perfect and shockingly ignorant to the world which makes Stephanie very complex. We see her come to peace with multiple demons from her life and embrace a few more along the way during her search for answers giving us a protagonist who’s far from perfect and is clearly envious of a friend’s life to the point where there was even a moment I truly believed Stephanie was happy Emily was gone. Both Lively and Kendrick completely embrace their roles as polar opposite people who bond over what is essentially their own isolations from the world around them. The two of them have great chemistry, play off each other perfectly and bring out all the potential hidden in their characters over the course of a great two-hour thrill ride.
The third piece of the puzzle is Henry Golding as Sean, Emily’s husband and a once-popular author who has settled for being a college professor. Golding has had a big year as he was also the lead male actor in “Crazy Rich Asians” and while he’s completely overshadowed by his female counterparts in “A Simple Favor” he still shines on his own as the love interest of both women. He’s a man who we can never truly get a read on over the course of the film. He’s meant to be the scapegoat of sorts. Sometimes he serves as a red herring, other times he serves as a source of information for Stephanie that causes her to question what she truly believes about her missing best friend. Golding is a charming actor who seems to be very capable of tackling simple roles with his own added complexity for spice. Throughout the story Sean’s motives or true feelings about either woman in the triangle are always in question and Golding works hard to keep it that way reading lines with convincing sincerity but an oddly casual air of arrogance that keeps his true opinions in question for the audience. Is he in on a conspiracy or is he being victimized by a mental game he is simply trying to avoid? You have to watch the movie to find out, but regardless Golding takes his role in stride and gives us a man who seems to know more than he lets on but may also be completely out of the loop all at the same time adding to a great mystery.
I’m not going to lie I thoroughly enjoyed almost everything about “A Simple Favor”. It’s a thrilling and engaging mystery flick that had me guessing all the way through as to the reality of the situation and balances its drama with some awesome levity hearkening back to Paul Feig’s origins in comedy. The two lead actresses hold the film well giving us great characters that are complex and flawed and help lead a story that is crafted so smoothly it’s hard to get lost in the mix despite its many layers and twists and turns. It’s just plain fun. It’s not spoon fed but it’s also not as contrived as it could have been. I was invested in this story. I wanted to see how it would end and once I figured out what was going on I couldn’t wait to see how it would all play out. In some ways it subverts the usual predictability of mystery thrillers and in other ways it fully embraces genre tropes but in a unique manner that helps it stand out in the crowd. It’s funny, engaging, exciting and all kinds of neat. The story is well written, the script is incredibly fluid and the mystery kept me guessing the whole way through especially when things start to happen that have the viewer and the character’s questioning the reality of the situation.
There’s also some fantastic social commentary mixed in as well that never feels forced or contrived but is rather worked into the story as actual plot points. Both lead actresses capture personality traits that are essentially flawed where one is trying to earn relevance through a vlog and appears to be desperate for attention and crave control while the other has issues with social norms and may even be a sociopath to some degree. It draws into question what we as people perceive as normal. We’re thrown questions about whether or not it’s right or wrong that Sean and Stephanie get so close after Emily disappears or if Emily’s aggressive and vulgar personality is appropriate even if we all secretly want to have that kind of confidence and carefree approach to life. It also draws inspiration from the concepts of jealousy an envy and how far someone will go to either stand out or even disappear and questions what is worse, wanting too much or striving for too little. None of these concepts are thrown in the viewers’ faces either but are weaved into a great script and screenplay that naturally causes us to question these ideas in the context of the characters’ lives and they even become necessary to the story. I also thought it was cool that the screenplay includes little details like justifying how much time Stephanie has to spare because she doesn’t work, she lives off her husband’s life insurance. “A Simple Favor” is a rare movie where a character’s ability to spend so much time away from work or other commitments to be involved in the plot is actually explained and it’s simple things like that that help make “A Simple Favor” such a cool movie at the end of the day.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
I don’t have a lot of complaints about “A Simple Favor” but it does have one glaring weakness I would like to point out and that’s the creative decision to show the reality of what occurred for the audience while characters are telling their story and often lying about the truth. I would have preferred we just saw character talking to each other, no flashbacks or reveals. Keep us as ignorant as the protagonist. It was kind of neat for us to be privy to the reality of the situation while the characters on screen are scrambling to figure things out, but wouldn’t it be better if we were out of the loop too? That would make the mystery so much more fun and would have allowed us to learn the truth along with Stephanie.
The odd part is they actually do kind of embrace that approach early on. For much of the first two acts we learn everything right along with the main characters. For a long time we’re not privy to information they don’t have and that works to add to the mystery. It’s not until the third act that that we start to truly learn what’s going on and it’s then that we start seeing flashbacks overlaying the story being told from someone’s own mouth which is meant to enlighten the viewer as to the truth while leaving us clambering for characters to believe or see through certain details. For me this felt more like Paul Feig getting a little overzealous almost like he was so excited to reveal his twists that he put everything front and center which kind of spoils the surprise when we finally do learn what’s going on. It’s not enough to really harm the film’s overall quality and I’ll admit it’s a very subjective judgement, but for me personally it was the one aspect of the film where I felt improvements could have been made and it could have helped “A Simple Favor” be maybe even more thrilling than it already is.
So if you’re asking would I recommend this movie, I would give an emphatic yes. “A Simple Favor” is a great film. It’s engrossing, it’s suspenseful, it’s thrilling and it’s just a whole lot of fun. The characters are great and the actors portraying them are perfectly cast. While I would have appreciated a different approach to revealing the mystery it’s still a pretty neat and dramatic story to behold where you’re seldom confident in what’s true and what’s not, leaving you guessing right up to the pulse pounding conclusion. It still has some of Paul Feig’s comedic levity worked in but it proved the director can go out of genre and still turn in great pieces of cinema. Simply put, “A Simple Favor” is one thriller I look forward to experiencing time and time again.