Director: Paul Feig • Writer: Jessica Sharzer • DOP: John Schwartzman • ED: Brent White • DES : Jefferson Sage • MUS: Theodore Shapiro • Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Jean Smart. Rupert Friend
Initially drawn in by a premise that sounded Hitchockian in its simplicity, it was a jarring shock to discover A Simple Favour was a very different film from its pitch. However, in another sense (and paying homage to one of its stars) it was pitch perfect. Also funnier and far better than any one dared hope or imagine in this distinctly fallow period for film.
And what a fizzy heady confection it is. Playing out like a comedic take on Gone Girl, this twisty pretzel sets out its stall from the get-go as Anna Kendrick uses her minor online celebrity (I am not going to use the word ‘vlogger’ in this review…. ah damn it) to spread the word about her missing friend Emily (Blake Lively). In this shallow suburban pond, appearances are definitely deceptive though.
Turns out Stephanie and Emily have become fast friends and barely know each other. Stephanie’s eagerness to jump blindly into deep smit with her new bestie allows her to blissfully overlook huge warning signs about Emily. Enduring her sharp tongue and hair-trigger temper are a sufficient price for Stephanie to hang out in a beautiful house with her beautiful friend, having beautiful drinks. Kendrick infuses her single mum/star-baker character with a convincing hollowness at her core. In parenting circles, she is isolated by her perky perfectionist attitude while naturally drawn to the ideal Emily seems to project.
Much like this review, the simple favour the film pivots on, takes a while to arrive. In fact, it’s a favour innocently requested of Stephanie before – to pick up her friend’s kid from school. So far so simple, but then Emily doesn’t come home. Once Emily is officially missing, the film becomes a different beast. More of a shaggy dog story. But a bloody loveable dog all the same. It also makes shag-all sense and requires a suspension bridge of disbelief but don’t fight this film. Let it win.
There is a tonal disrupt in a film being both a mystery and a comedy. It’s not a combo you see very often but A Simple Favour seems all the fresher for it. Frankly, anyone wanting to poke holes in the plot of this film could have a field day. Slaves to logic or those with concerns about credibility should leave that critical facility at the door. Or not bother going through the door in the first place. You gotta surrender to the nutty tone of this, as say Stephanie impersonates a cleaner at a southern Gothic mansion straight out of ‘Scooby Doo’. Or considering its creators, ‘American Horror Story’.
Quality wise, Kendrick is always a gold standard. She clearly has taste, grace and great comedic chops, including a willingness to be goofy that is deeply endearing. Director Paul Feig also shows an adroit nimbleness here in brilliantly dialling back from his Ghostbusters reboot, which was unfairly booted. Re-emerging with a whip-smart effort with a pared-down cast just feels right. And he lets the film breathe brilliantly. There is no story reason why, for instance, Kendrick singing along to the radio should be included. In fact, any studio interference might push towards pulling the scene due to being too close to that whole Pitch Perfect shtick. But it is retained if only for that most old fashioned of desires – to entertain an audience.
My own big admission is that I have never gotten Blake Lively. Till now. She’s always been striking but this role taps deep into the talent well. And she is not found wanting. She carries the glamour with radiant ease but her clear relish in delivering laser-guided lines is palpable. And here we turn to another heroine: screenwriter Jessica Sharzer equips everyone with aces, especially her leads. And they serve them up with serious sparkle and vicious élan. There truly are some gasp-inducing bits of audacity here. Plenty of barbs aimed at the school-gate set and more truth-bombs aimed firmly at the heart of consumer America. One entire unseemly element of Stephanie’s back story could have been excised even late in the day without hurting the film. Again, it remains. It garners lots of laughs but wow – it feels like a heavy dash of hard alcohol in a mocktail.
Rarely have I wanted to return to a film just to reaffirm if I heard that right or whether I caught everything. It’s a screenplay of real subversive substance riddled with needle and with a fair bit of acid on its fangs. I think the script should be in the mix come award time. It looks simple but isn’t that the trick of all truly accomplished work. A definite favourite of mine going forward.