By Elias Savada.
The crazy wait-who-did-what? mystery that is A Simple Favor offers up a pair of smooth, subversive, suburban housewives that spin some sparkling dialogue off each other and their communal parental units. Mystery loves the company of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in Paul Feig’s head-spinning, twisty-turvy tale of fremily intrigue. Equal parts secrets, lies, betrayal, murder, greed, playdates, and vlogging, this whimsically devilish version of Gone Girl, set in a waspy neighborhood not too far from Stepford, Connecticut, is immensely watchable.
As a caper comedy, it is lighter than the boisterous actions on display in the director’s broader work. While Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters (2016) left me slightly underwhelmed, he seems to be the one person who knows how to handle Melissa McCarthy (The Heat, Spy), whose career has stalled with a series of recent duds, particularly the Muppet-esque crime parody The Happytime Murders. Before hitting pay dirt in 2011 with the massively funny Bridesmaids, Feig created the wonderful show Freaks and Geeks. While A Simple Favor is designed as a smaller, less antic-belabored film, it still follows Feig’s penchant for finding vehicles that highlight finely written female characters.
Therein, Kendrick and Lively shine as adversarial BFFs. They are moms who have arrived at their questionable status as a parent/role model, with young sons as classmates, from vastly different perspectives. Posh, demanding, and ferocious Emily (Lively) is married to the well chiseled Sean (Crazy Rich Asians‘ Henry Golding), an author-professor who can’t seem to get that second book out the door. Emily’s past is a big, deep, dark secret. The practical, perky, and widowed Stephanie (Kendrick) lost her husband and half-brother in a car crash, one of several back stories that become integral parts of the compelling plot. An incessant do-gooder, she devotes herself to her son, volunteering for any and every activity his teacher’s request of her. When she starts to pencil in her name on a chore sheet to handle half a dozen items, the schoolteacher implores her to try and limit herself to one.
This adaptation by Jessica Sharzer, based on Darcey Bell’s debut novel of the same name, sprinkles about some Truth-or-Dare, ass-biting moments, which the screenwriter supersized in her too-frantic script for the suspense melodrama Nerve, a flawed 2016 effort which took that game to outlandish levels.
The story begins with the titular request. Can Stephanie please pick up her son from elementary school and watch him while Emily attends to an important personal matter? When Emily doesn’t return and goes missing, the police start to look into the central characters and their lifestyles for clues. A flustered Stephanie uses her microcosmic, hokey internet vlog about cooking as a beacon for her new assignment as cub reporter/ace detective, much like Sarah Koenig’s non-fiction podcast Serial, while lies and secrets gush forth along various story tangents. Webcasting on the disappearance of her “friend,” Stephanie’s investigative instincts quickly sharpen (and her audience grows), coincidentally encouraged by some of the never-back-down shenanigans she learned about from the absent mom. Imagine Mary Poppins morphing into Nancy Drew, with a coating of True Detective.
Among the film’s abundant lighter moments are the fellow school mom’s and singular dad (that being the perfectly cast Andrew Rannells, in full snide mode), who funnel comic contempt at Stephanie’s overbearing nature and her lapdog ability to do Emily’s bidding. The film zig zags through truth and fiction, with Feig deliciously showing the former as visual flashbacks while present-day characters are espousing the latter.
Occasionally, the comedy-melodrama approach gets over-the-top devious and you might get a chuckle out of the underlying reason for a particular car chase. Yeah, there’s more than a few MacGuffins placed about the film, its setting an allegorical stand-in for Alfred Hitchcock’s Bodega Bay. In Feig’s version of The Birds, subtract the water and envision Stephanie as the Tippi Hedren character and Emily as, well, the birds. When A Simple Favor actually pushes for an film reference, cineastes at the screening I attended applauded Stephanie’s making emphatic references to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s psychological conspiracy thriller Diabolique (or maybe she’s thinking of the inferior 1996 remake with Sharon Stone?), when accusatory fingers start pointing in her direction.
While Kendrick and Lively embrace their roles with a joyful zest, there are some wonderful small bits that are finagled into the film’s ever-escalating scheme to keep you guessing. Jean Smart is an eccentric, backwoods mother who considers anyone who has kids “brain damaged,” and Linda Cardellini (an alum of Freaks and Geeks) as a goth New York City artist.
Your popcorn awaits.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).