Paul Feig’s career has thrived by creatively nurturing movies with women, about women, by women, behaving however the hell they want. From Bridesmaids to Ghostbusters, he brings out some of the best performances from comedic actresses. Under his direction of A Simple Favor, he achieves that goal yet again, if only the movie could have just been a straight-forward comedy.
Based on the novel by Darcey Bell, A Simple Favor follows type-A mommy blogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) as she forms an unlikely friendship with the mother of her young son’s best friend, Emily (Blake Lively), a fashionable ice-queen with a serious potty-mouth and serious secrets. When Emily goes missing, Stephanie takes the same detail-oriented obsession she puts towards crafting onto finding Emily and uncovering a criminal mystery. She also finds the time to heal the grief of Emily’s son and give some romantic/sexual healing to Emily’s handsome, roguish husband Sean (Henry Golding). Stephanie is the mom that can do it all.
Most of the promotion around this film wants to paint it akin to Gone Girl, a thriller with a dash of dark humor. A Simple Favor only shares the Gone Girl DNA in that some of the film is about a mysterious, cold blonde and her faltering, philandering husband. That’s really where the comparisons can end. A Simple Favor does have a dark mystery to solve, but the bulk of the film is a pure comedy that plays off the public personas of its lead actors, putting those perceptions on steroids. As Stephanie, Kendrick is all the things audiences loves about her: she’s plucky, awkward, overeager, endearing. As Emily, Lively is devastatingly stylish, bitingly hilarious, and intimidatingly sexy. These two women make a great cinematic pair, even physically with Blake’s leggy height and Anna’s petite stature. The best scenes between them are when they’re bonding and spilling secrets to each other. The chemistry and fun the two actresses are having is palpable.
If only the whole film could be about their unlikely friendship: once Emily’s disappearance and the subsequent mystery go into effect (which is pretty early in the film), the fun of the film unravels. All the uncovered clues are too convenient, which takes away from any unnerving, tension-filled moments that thrillers are supposed to elicit. Stephanie also doesn’t seem to change as a character. It’s incredibly unclear what she wants: does she want to be Emily? Does she want a new husband (she’s a widow, under VERY dark and disturbing circumstances that barely get emotionally dealt with)? Does she want to be famous? Her amorphous ambition is fine for a comedy, but it track in a thriller.
Besides real lack of motivation, there are also some odd, unexplained choices in the film. Why is a flashback to a young, high school age Stephanie being played by Kendrick but another flashback to a teenage Emily is played by a different, younger actress? This small choice feels jarring and only serve to take viewers out of any tension in the plot.
The real winner in this film is Lively, who initially plays Emily like a quientessential grown-up cool girl straight out of Gossip Girl, but then really seems to have a great time going dark. Her performance has slight shades of Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Maybe a role like that where she can go dark and cheeky, without the slapstick moments, would really be a perfect fit for Lively.
The unfortunate loser of the film is Henry Golding. Hot off his star turn in Crazy Rich Asians, and he just seems to fall flat in this film. Yes, he’s stunning to look at and he does ooze charm but that’s about it. Is his character Sean a bit of a pawn in the film, yes, but he felt pretty one-note the whole movie.
It’s hard to know what should be taken seriously in this film when there’s always as a one-off joke to laugh at. If audiences are looking for an easy, slightly dark comedy, A Simple Favor fills that need, but not anything more meaty than that.