A Simple Favor and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate
Directed by Paul Feig
I only got the trailer for this movie once and I was honestly not sure if it was a joke. Not in the sense that I thought the trailer was FAKE, but more that I wasn’t sure if there was supposed to be some kind of ‘gotcha’ in this; like with A Deadly Adoption explicitly being an April Fool’s joke despite the film itself being rather straight faced about the whole thing. To me it looked like a Tyler Perry thriller along the lines of Temptation or Acrimony, and the fact that it was directed by noted comedy director Paul Feig seemed like an indication that this was in some way a satire of that kind of movie, but it never really clued me on the punchline. I guess that’s as good a way as any to go into a movie as I know it exists but have absolutely no clear sense of expectations for it which gives it a chance to truly surprise me. Will it surprise me in the right way and turn out to be either a fun metatextual examination of the genre or just another great entry in it? Alternatively, it could be an utterly confused mess of a movie with no clear idea of what it wants to be, but in any case, let’s find out!!
The movie follows Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick); a single mom who has more energy every single day than I could muster in a lifetime as she constantly finds something to do for her son or for his school despite it making all the other parents look bad. One such parent is Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), though she has the advantage of not actually caring what other people think of her and actually finds something endearing about Stephanie after the two are forced to spend some time together as both of their sons are best friends. She’s a bit caustic, maybe likes to use people a bit too much, and certainly has no problem deflecting all of her problems onto everyone else, but there’s something that Stephanie finds fascinating about her and they become best (if slightly unhealthy) friends! That is until Emily calls Stephanie one day asking her to watch her son as she’s got an emergency at work and then just disappears. No one knows where she went, not even her husband Sean (Henry Golding), and it seems that the authorities aren’t taking the case all that seriously. I guess it’s up to Stephanie The Fixer to not only try to find Emily but to keep her family together in her absence which starts to make things a bit awkward between her and Sean and ESPECIALLY between her and Emily’s son. Twists and turns are the name of the game here as more and more information is uncovered about Emily as well as Sean, which points to possible foul play or something equally sinister! Will Stephanie uncover the truth of just who Emily is and will she like what she ends up finding out? How much is she willing to put her neck out for this woman, and will she have to pay some serious consequences for her incessant snooping? Most importantly, WHAT WILL THIS MEAN FOR HER COOKING BLOG!?
So to answer the question as to whether this is a joke or a sincere effort by Feig, I’d say it’s much more of the latter even if the film has a sharp sense of humor about itself. At first glance you could almost confuse it for a send up of Gone Girl as the premise is quite similar (as far as spoilers, I’d say the situation is SOMETHING SORT OF LIKE what happened in Gone Girl), but the thing is that not only does this manage to stand on its own outside of the shadow that Gone Girl has left on the mystery genre, I genuine think that it surpasses it in a lot of ways; not a hard thing to do admittedly considering I HATE that movie (I really cannot stand David Fincher films) but I’m sure I’m in the minority on that. Say what you will, I much prefer my murder mysteries to have a bit of FUN with the rampant killing and scheming!
The movie works as well as it does because it is beautify stylistic and tightly constructed; allowing the film to feel light and spontaneous in between the grimmer moments and engaging mysteries while also never losing sight of what’s REALLY important to keeping the whole thing afloat. It has a solid pace that rarely gives things too long to settle before finding ways to upend it entirely. Unlike something like Suburbicon which felt like it was floundering for something to do before getting to its rather mundane plot twist and mostly sedate climax, this one has a solid pace that rarely gives things too long to settle before upending the script entirely which keeps you MOSTLY guessing all the way through as to what’s really going on.
Now a common criticism that’s often thrown at poorly constructed movies (*cough* Suicide Squad *cough* Fantastic Four *cough*) is that it feels like two or more films violently smashed together in the editing room. However, this film manages to do KIND of the same thing but is so brilliant at incorporating its wildly switching tone that it feels completely organic and not like plot twists are coming out of left field. A lot of this has to do with the character of Stephanie and Anna Kendrick’s fantastic performance of her. She’s the audience’s emotional rock who keeps everything in perspective even as events start to spiral out of control; not that she doesn’t have strong reactions to the various absurd twists and turns her life takes the further she gets involved in these people’s lives, but her strength is in her ability to take a step back, take a breath, and work out solutions to whatever life throws at her. It doesn’t always work out as her TRAGIC BACKSTORY is a perfect example of how she can’t keep control of things as much as she wants to, but I was genuinely impressed with her ability to essentially keep on trucking despite the challenges this situation threw at her and it endeared me greatly to her struggle. With this kind of grounding, it means that the movie can go off into wild tangents and introduce wacky characters without feeling entirely out of place or incongruous with the rest of the film, and Paul Feig takes full advantage of this freedom to pack the outskirts of this movie with a lot of goofy moments that are much more reminiscent of his previous work than the main storyline. It all works together seamless for almost the entire runtime of the movie (we’ll get to the third act soon enough) and is honestly one of the better films I’ve seen this year because of it.
As much as Anna Kendrick keeps this movie grounded and cohesive, this wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did if it didn’t have a well-crafted villain and this is primarily where I think the movie succeeds over Gone Girl. Well, that and NOT being an utterly miserable experience (incoming spoilers for the movie). Gillian Flynn, the writer of both the book and screenplay of Gone Girl, certainly made something intriguing in the character of Amy, but it also indulges in the kind of intolerant fear mongering that is often used to smear marginalized groups; primarily with Amy not only accusing innocent men of rape, but living in a world where her claims are accepted without challenge or blowback which is framed as cynically as the scenes of the media going all in on attacking her husband Nick. It’s that kind of feverishly depraved worldview that MRA types scream about and try to poison the discourse with (despite it in NO WAY reflecting reality) and I fail to see the value in a fictional character, villain or not, that represents such a toxic mindset; one that we see in many forms in many different movies (*cough* every single Death Wish movie *cough*). Maybe the book does a better job than the movie (something I also have to say about this film as well as I haven’t read either book), but just comparing the two adaptations I found Emily and her framing in here to be much more effective while covering a lot of the same ground. Both are women who are unequivocally villainous in their schemes while having something of a legitimate ax to grind even if the “goal” in question seems to be a lot more effort than its worth (is divorce not something that exists in movies like this?) but while I never really got a sense of Amy outside of the depths to which she’s willing to go to be vindictive and spiteful, this movie does a fantastic job of characterizing Emily. She’s hard as nails and clearly has less than kosher intentions with Stephanie, but she’s charming and honestly has some decent points about the people around her and the way she’s basically been forced into her current situation; albeit without any real self-reflection on herself which clearly shows that she’s still missing (or ignoring) pieces of the puzzle that is her life. There’s ACTUAL framing in this movie that corresponds to the rather complex nature of the character instead of just some angry screed against pretty much all of humanity that we got throughout Gone Girl. Nick sucks, the media sucks, women like Amy are EVIL AND OUT TO GET YOU, at what point am I ACTUALLY supposed to care about something again? Not EVERYTHING about her works (the third act is a bit of a sour note overall), but I honestly stayed invested in what she was going to do and how this situation could potentially resolve itself throughout the whole movie which is more than I can say about Gone Girl and plenty of other movies.
If I had any sort of issue with the movie it’d be the third act which is where things get a bit too hectic. It’s not enough to derail such an engaging and inspired narrative, but you can start to see how easily things could have fallen apart without such disciplined film making and well fleshed out character to keep things together in the earlier acts. It just feels like we’re moving way too fast with the pacing and editing starting to lose a bit of focus as to what plot threads we’re trying to resolve and how what everyone’s plan is to get there. There are schemes towards the very end that I didn’t fully understand in terms of what the ultimate goal was for them as well as the motivations of those involved; some of whom SEEM to have made a complete about face but then maybe not? It wraps itself up sufficiently well at the very end with a climax that has a solid payoff, but there’s still a question or two left over that I wish the movie had gotten just a few more minutes to resolve before going to credits.
It’s been a pretty solid year for mysteries as both Searching and The Happytime Murders are easy contenders for my best of the year list, and now they have a bit more competition with this film. I really did enjoy the movie that much and have absolutely no problem recommending that you go out and see this in a theater! It’s got a well-crafted and carefully executed story (for the most part), endearing characters that have genuine depth to them other than the depths to which they’ll sink to shock you, and it’s pretty darn funny to boot! Whenever a director goes out on a limb like this and actually makes something fantastic, I do end up hoping that it finds its audience because it’d be a shame if this is the last time Feig takes a stab at this genre considering how great of a job he did with it. It’s kind of old hat at this point to say that comedians are great at incorporating their strengths as such into darker genres (look no further than Jordan Peele), but it’s always a pleasant surprise whenever we get another example of that cliché turning out to be true. Now I’m even MORE excited to see him make another Ghostbusters movie! One that we’ll probably never get at this point! Sigh…