Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick raise Paul Feig’s hybrid oddity above average – while having a great time
Let’s be clear: if you’ve seen the trailer for the new Paul Feig film, A Simple Favour (or A Simple Favor, across the Atlantic), then you’re confused – but not as confused as you will be watching the film.
Not confusing in the Inception sense – no, but just as baffling as sub-conscious-hopping is genre-hopping. Skipping from Bridesmaids-style girl comedy to erotic thriller to twisty crime-drama is this batty and slippery film, featuring – and lifted up by – a central, contrasting chemistry between leads Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively.
Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick) aspires to be the perfect mom – but a widowed single mom, one who passes the time waiting to pick her son Miles up from school (and trying to sign up for every parent volunteer job possible) by vlogging to fellow moms.
Befriending fellow mother Emily Nelson (Lively), Stephanie goes to Emily’s stunning house as Miles has play dates with the latter’s son, Nicky. The moms are all play too – sipping strong Martinis and spilling their worst secrets to one another.
Emily, to Stephanie’s disbelief, expresses a dissatisfaction with her lavish life as a fashion designer’s PR director. She expresses discontent with the failed writing career of husband Sean (Henry Golding), and their unlikely dire financial situation. Yet she seems in control. She seems powerful. She is an enigmatic, unattainable presence, everything Stephanie isn’t yet wishes she were.
Then one day, Emily asks of Stephanie a simple favour – to pick up Nicky from school. She does so, enthusiastically. But then Emily doesn’t come back – first for hours, then days. Stephanie then starts to dig into her mysterious friend’s life and past, a decision which leads her down increasingly murky paths.
The thing about Feig’s film is it does all the parts well – the comedy is more hit than miss, the mystery elements are engaging enough, and the sexual intrigue just about works. The strange mish-mash of all three – it is a different film every five minutes – even manages to be more interesting than indecisive.
Where it falls short is in basic narrative terms. It is both tiringly predictable and unfathomably unlikely from the midpoint forth. Odd comedic characters are introduced to pad out the plot, but aren’t particularly funny and only serve to congest the story. When it could have gone one way – at the point of Emily’s disappearance – it chose to take a wholly less satisfactory direction. It might have been the set-up to a really delicious spine-chiller, and is a hair’s breadth from going that way.
The final act lifts things somewhat, with the increasingly ridiculous plot twists just about managing to hold interest and the sporadic laughs never entirely dry up, if never achieving hysteria.
But that’s really it for the bad stuff.
Kendrick and Lively are outstanding as an odd pair, throwing themselves full-bodied and blooded into roles seemingly written for them. Stephanie’s high-pitched innocence and Emily’s powerful, dangerous aura are perfectly balanced, dialogue snappy and believable.
Lively’s absence from a large portion of the film is certainly to its detriment, but admittedly necessary for the character’s place in the drama. She commands her scenes with a permanent half-smirk and a sexy, commanding charisma. Stephanie gawps just as much as we do.
The supporting cast, including Andrew Rannells and Rupert Friend, is passable but scarcely noticeable next to the two powerhouse central characters. Inconsequential appearances of police detectives or artists are merely a distraction linked to the bonkers narrative.
By the end, you feel exhausted, but Feig can’t be faulted for trying. There is an endearing quality to the fact the film seems to know how silly it is, and goes with it. The writing is scattershot and the plot bewilderingly wobbly, but the thing that will attract people to A Simple Favour is the best thing about it: two actresses perfect for the film and having a great deal of fun with it.