September 12, 2018
‘A Simple Favor’ Review: Paul Feig’s Thriller is Too Self-Aware for Its Own Good
Over the last decade, Paul Feig has established himself as a director who loves to work with talented women. From Bridesmaids to Ghostbusters to The Heat, he’s often excelled at capturing the uniquely spiky relationships modern women have with each other and themselves. At first glance, his choice to direct the suspense thriller A Simple Favor may seem inexplicable, since Feig’s other films are all straight-up comedies. But A Simple Favor, surprisingly to its detriment, is a movie as interested in being funny and self-aware as it is in being twisty and tense.
Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie Smothers, a perky young single mommy vlogger in Connecticut whose entire life revolves around her son Miles. She’s a quirky, awkward overachiever (so, you know, an Anna Kendrick type) who hasn’t always succeeded at making friends with the other parents. That all changes when she encounters Emily (Blake Lively), a gorgeous woman whose son Nicky is in Miles’ class. Emily seems to be everything Stephanie isn’t: self-assured, brashly confident, bold, and daring. They strike up an unpredictable friendship that goes south when, after asking Stephanie to watch her son after school one day, Emily disappears.
Or does she? A Simple Favor is one of those films where very little is what it seems, a feeling that is painfully clear from the outset. (The opening scene starts in medias res, as Stephanie delivers her latest vlog, five days after Emily disappeared and she learned that her new friend has some dark secrets.) There are, of course, plenty of shocks as Stephanie learns more about her new friend, but Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer make it too obvious too early on that something’s very amiss.
The strength of this movie is also its biggest weakness: A Simple Favor boasts a heaping helping of self-awareness. The characters in this movie may not know exactly that they’re in a movie, but they also don’t feel remotely realistic. Sharzer’s script (based on the novel of the same name), as well as the cast, seems to be winking for a good chunk of the proceedings, as if everyone involved knows how ridiculously goofy this all is.
Though there’s nothing wrong with a good black comedy, A Simple Favor wants to have it all: it wants to be a dark, self-aware comedy while also being a fairly straightforward thriller as Stephanie tries to solve Emily’s disappearance. It doesn’t help that Kendrick’s portrayal of Stephanie, in part because the script isn’t ever able to get a handle on her, veers from feeling sincere to being sarcastic to approaching Single White Female status.
Lively is more acidic as Emily; depending on the scene, she’s either the life coach Stephanie never knew she needed or a younger version of the kind of gone-to-seed older women drowning in booze. (Fitting, then, that the always-lively Jean Smart shows up as Emily’s boozy mother in a key scene.) But the relationship they have never matches with Stephanie’s constant reference to Emily as her best friend, and the script never seems quite able to reconcile the reality of their connection with how Stephanie perceives it.
Feig’s propensity for comedy (as well as his propensity for making movies that are always about 20 minutes longer than they need to be) serves as a bit of a crutch. Especially in the endless third act, with reversal after reversal after reversal, the use of jokes feels both off-putting and weird. To wit: in the final standoff, one character reveals to another that they’ve sent cops on a wild-goose chase to the home of a fellow parent. Cut to that parent getting high, then being shocked at the arrival of cops in riot gear. In a scene with increasing tension, it’s pretty weird to hit pause to get a laugh. (There’s a similar comic beat later in the third act that feels entirely out of place, too, undercutting what could be a satisfying payoff.)
In a lot of ways, A Simple Favor is an attempt at redoing the gleefully trashy 1998 film Wild Things, but with very mixed results. Inconsistencies aside, Kendrick and Lively have a few fun scenes to watch, and Kendrick’s chemistry with Henry Golding (playing Emily’s ex-novelist husband) is equally enjoyable. At one point after Emily’s disappearance, Stephanie strides up to Emily’s husband, and demands to know: “Are you trying to Diabolique me?” It’s the funniest line in the film, but also reflects the core problem. Referencing a classic thriller where two women try to get over on each other shows the filmmakers have a sharp sense of humor. But it also serves as a bracing reminder that A Simple Favor doesn’t even want to step out of the shadows of its inspirations. It just wants to you know it’s smarter than its source material, which isn’t that smart a move.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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