Director: Paul Feig Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding Running Time: 117 minutes
A Simple Favour is being billed as coming “from the darker side of Paul Feig”, the man behind films like Bridesmaids, Spy and Ghostbusters; comedies with a reliance on improv and a focus on women. And while his latest film certainly is further along the Dulux spectrum than those titles, A Simple Favour is still a comfortable step just inside the comfort zone for Feig; a sexy thriller that gets how inherently silly it can be to be sexy, or thrilling. That might sound like a criticism, but it’s key to the film’s charm. It’s a combination of thriller and comedy, but rather than feeling like Feig resting on his laurels it has a refreshing feel, riffing on the genre but never thinking its above it. The result, similarly to Spy, is a pleasant surprise.
Based on a novel by Darcey Bell, A Simple Favour sees Feig working on material from a woman’s perspective once again, a definite benefit in a genre where the stories can often take a wrong turn into “women are not to be trusted”. The screenplay is an adaptation by Jessica Sharzer, whose credits include American Horror Story, The L-Word and the fun-but-dumb teen thriller Nerve, all of which hint to this film’s arch sensibility. It’s a playful take on thrillers in the Gillian Flynn mold; sex, lies and video-blogs. Feig may still be the man in the director’s chair, but he’s always had a lighter touch creatively, collaborating often with women screenwriters and, as an ‘actor’s director’, giving a lot of freedom to his leads, letting their performances drive the story. It’s an approach that has helped Melissa McCarthy shine in the past, and here it does wonders for Anna Kendrick and in particular, Blake Lively.
Both suburban moms, Stephanie (Kendrick) and Emily (Lively) are opposing contrasts to the hated “Cool Girl” type Amy describes in Gone Girl. Stephanie is a hyper-involved single parent, running a housewife vlog while doting on her young son Miles. Pitied and patronised by the other moms in the town, Stephanie’s adult interactions are mostly kept behind the computer screen, providing life updates (and movie narration) in between cupcake recipes. She wears comfy sweaters and long skirts, an avid reader with a constant need to apologise and who hasn’t had sex since her husband’s tragic death. Emily meanwhile, is a Type A of a different type. Constantly decked out in fabulous powersuits and with a tongue as sharp as her dress sense, she’s isolated from the other moms by their intimidation and by her choice, an avid drinker with a dark sense of humour, mysterious and alluring; the kind of woman Stephanie would only have known through reading about in book clubs before they strike up an unlikely friendship. Through sharing secrets and martinis the pair grow closer, until Emily asks Stephanie to look after her own son Nicky after school one afternoon and straight up vanishes. Stephanie’s intense need to please sees her becoming very involved both in the search for her ‘best friend’ and in comforting her family, especially Emily’s hunky husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding).
From there it’s a twisty, turny ride, and though it’s a comedic version of the ‘vanishing girl’ mystery, A Simple Favour is at its best when it takes its story relatively seriously. There are moments when the humour undercuts the tension the film is building, but it mostly keeps a consistent tone. It’s a spoof leaning more towards the Edgar Wright appreciative end than an outright pisstake, and that works well. With Feig’s improv impulses, the film could potentially have collapsed under the weight of characters saying “wait, what?”, pointing out logic flaw and trading lame gags. The humour is mostly baked into the characters, and thanks to thorough writing and great performances from the leads, it manages to be funny while still keeping the mystery moving.
From the moment you’re introduced to Stephanie and Emily you seemingly understand exactly who the characters are and how they behave, which services both the comedy and the mystery; they’re sitcom characters you can laugh with, which creates intrigue when they veer into suspicious behaviour, and for the most part that meshes well. Kendrick is a performer who rarely challenges herself but pulls off an impressive balancing act as this movie’s lead, needing to be both sympathetic pratfaller and story-propulsive sleuth. Lively is charismatic, acidic and dark, giving the kind of strong performance that one hopes sticks going forward – more parts like this for Lively in future please Hollywood, less Green Lantern love interests.
Keeping the audience surprised in between laughs and putting the lead performers talents front and centre, Feig plays well here even if he isn’t pushing himself as far out as it seems at first glance. He’s good at what he does, and even if A Simple Favour isn’t too different for it’s director’s usual territory, it’s entertainingly different enough among its contemporaries. It borrows from films of that nature with a sense of humour and a sense of style; the end result is entertaining and slick. Not as far gone as Gone Girl , we’d still take this a hundred times over po-faced efforts like The Girl on the Train.(3 / 5)