Director: Paul Feig
Stars: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding
We can always count on trashy movies hitting the multiplexes year in and year out, but goddamn, few recently have been as gloriously knowing and deliciously entertaining as the latest from Paul Feig, the man behind the beloved Bridesmaids and the besmirched Ghostbusters reboot.
Whatever you make of his career thus far, it should clue you in to the tonal tightrope walk performed throughout A Simple Favour (or A Simple Favor for US readers; though kudos to Lionsgate for amending the spelling for UK release). This feature’s stylish promotional campaign leans heavily on the suggestion that this time Feig’s playing it straight. This is – fittingly for the flick itself – a calculated deception. What audiences are instead presented with is a love letter to ridiculous quasi-erotic thrillers from a generation ago; a world with all the weight and seriousness of airport paperback fiction. A Simple Favour is so on point with the tropes it lambasts that you could make a case for calling the entire thing a spoof. If Gone Girl belatedly perfected the template, A Simple Favour kicks it in the ass.
Anna Kendrick knocks it out of the park as Stephanie Smothers; a nerdy widow, vlogger and all-round super MOM who becomes entangled in the beguiling life of mysterious career woman Emily (Blake Lively). From the moment Emily accepts Stephanie’s suggestion that their kids should have a playdate, it feels like watching a lioness toying with her prey. Emily doesn’t have friends; she has people who are useful to her. And Stephanie’s whole thing is being super useful.
A lopsided bond grows between them, so much so that when Emily goes missing for days on end, Stephanie makes it her life’s cause to find her… growing closer to concerned yet diffident husband Sean (Henry Golding; suddenly everywhere). From here all sorts of twists and turns corkscrew the viewer. Stephanie essentially finds herself playing Nancy Drew in a feature-length episode of Desperate Housewives, but with the (unsung) wit and smarts of unappreciated 90’s gold like Wild Things (yes, I’m serious; that flick’s resurgence is overdue…)
Feig’s comedic instincts assert themselves from the off. There is no taking this film seriously as we’re introduced to Stephanie, who is lovingly mocked from the get-go. Kendrick fits the part like a glove, playing to her accidentally-famous persona. She’s almost too adorable. Lively, meanwhile, clearly relishes the plum role of the secretive vixen who also happens to be an elite from the fashion world. A graveyard scene sees her stride into frame like Cate Blanchett in Ocean’s 8. Seriously, she is nailing it.
It could be argued that A Simple Favour has its cake and eats it. Incest. Threesomes. Loopy family histories. The rate of revelations starts to amp up toward the end of the second act. The soupy, soapy plot might’ve functioned better with a little streamlining, yet this would’ve deprived us Kendrick’s Stephanie undercutting conventions with her comical, klutzy sleuthing (a sequence involving someone else’s dress is just perfect). There are also more than a few casting missteps. I’m talking tricksy child actors and whoever that guy was playing Stephanie’s former husband in flashbacks. Not buying it.
Incredulous events flutter in through open windows in the plot (check out the haunted wardrobe mystery!), but Feig’s film survives – even thrives on – them all as part of the doolally fun… The studio landscape has become so thunderously dull and predictable (Venom anyone?). A Simple Favour argues for the resurgence of the playful, quirky and dangerously unpredictable mid-sized picture once again; disposable fare that has one singular objective: to entertain. And, not for nothing, this picture features some serious shoe porn.
What’s on offer here is not that far removed from the likes of the Fifty Shades movies, The Girl On The Train or the incorrectly titled Unforgettable. But those flicks all came undone in their approach to their subjects. All were self-serious to the point of redundancy, dimly zapping the life from themselves before our eyes. The tenacity here is the verve with which A Simple Favour comes at the genre. You want glossy, frothy, very silly thrills? Here they are. Come and get ’em!
In a way, Feig makes a case for the Best Popular Film idea that recently caused the Academy such flack. I wasn’t a fan of the proposal either, but watching A Simple Favour it started making sense.
This is the kind of feature that doesn’t get nominated for awards. It isn’t lofty enough in its endeavours. It has no aspirations for longevity or worthiness. And yet, through the spirit and skill of the execution, it stands tall. Every year produces a handful of such diamonds. Recently The Guest, Happy Death Day and 10 Cloverfield Lane spring to mind. Granted, those are all established genre pieces, but so is this movie. The tacky thriller has its devoted fan base, too. And they will embrace this flick and all of its campy excess. Not out of mockery, but with sincere appreciation.
These are the popular movies that Oscar will forget, but which will come up in idle conversation, fill DVD shelves (remember those?) or get viewed over and over on Netflix with a hangover while the prestige pictures gather dust and sit on the watch list.
The irony is that these movies do endure because they’re fun, easy, silly or, in this case, all three.
Sorry not sorry.