Starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells. Directed by Paul Feig.
Surprises are nice, aren’t they? It’s nice when someone does something you don’t expect of them, so to sit down to watch a film by Paul Feig, who previously brought us such varied works as I Am David (strange), Unaccompanied Minors (awful), Bridesmaids (funny), The Heat (not-so-funny), Spy (Jason Statham was good) and Ghostbusters (terrible). a mystery thriller film like A Simple Favor is a curious prospect to say the least.
Adapted by Jessica Sharzer from Darcey Bell’s bestselling novel, the film follows Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a single mother and vlogger who fails to make friends with the other parents at school until she meets enigmatic and sexy Emily (Blake Lively), who takes a shine to her, but when Emily goes missing, Stephanie’s obsession with finding out where her friend went turns dark.
First things first, there are some things hardwired into a genre that cannot be taken out, and both the novel and the film knows this. A Simple Favor is, for the most part, a fun and twisty ride that takes great relish in being what it is. The film, and Feig himself, are very cine-literate entities and there’s no taking that away. Dialogue within the film explicitly states the points of reference for the film, both Gaslight and Les Diaboliques are referenced, and the narrative of writer husbands who may or may not be what they seem calls to mind both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.
Feig is not David Fincher, but he’s not Tate Taylor either, so what he lacks in intense precision ala Fincher he makes up for in jet black humour that Taylor’s The Girl on the Train didn’t have. The fact that Feig has a history with comedy comes through in moments of physical or verbal comedy, like the repeated use of French music to set the tone of ease, or the liberal mouthed Emily talking as if nothing bothers her. Even the fact that a performer like Kendrick cannot help but be physically funny, even when just sitting on a backless couch, works well here.
It also helps that the screenplay is relishing the double-crossing; there’s a more freewheeling aspect to this film than Gone Girl, in which it sort of throws things at you surprisingly. Not just plot points or flashbacks purposefully laid of a character lying, so that we as an audience at times know more than certain characters (only to then realise we know less), but also in the form of throwing actors and actresses in who are normally big name draws. It’s a form of casting red herrings, to throw a performer known into the mix so we assume they mean more than they do (and it helps when one such is Linda Cardellini of whom we never see enough).
Kendrick holds the film with her always enjoyable screen presence. Though she forever seems like she’s about 18, Kendrick plays the mother with a more secretive personal life than we expect very well. She’s one of those actresses, like Tom Hanks, that earn our love the minute she flashes that full face smile of hers. She gets the character absolutely correct, she’s a little too goody-goody to be trusted, a little too eager to help and take part, and a little too attentive to her son to truly trust.
It helps that she’s countered by Blake Lively, the opposite of her character. Lively has slowly been working at making a proper name for herself in film – her blockbusting chops briefly damaged by Green Lantern, and her name made in teen-centric drama Gossip Girl – but this, along with her central (near solo) role in The Shallows show her range and ability. As Emily, Lively gets a role to really sink her teeth into. Lively is gorgeous, of course, but her voice, height and build all call to mind the femme fatales of the 30s and 40s, at certain points when sat in one extraordinary costume (she has several), she looks like a dead ringer for Catherine Deneurve.
In the end, the film works best when enjoyed as a French-style psycho-thriller about two women matching minds, even when the twists get a little too twisty, and Henry Golding (of Crazy Rich Asians fame) isn’t the stern enigmatic male figure that you would hope (a role better suited to Zac Efron).
Even so, as the twists pile on top of each other it keeps itself much more certain than other thrillers of its sort by that streak of humour, and its two central ladies pulling out all the stops. Feig shows he has better work than so-so Melissa McCarthy vehicles in him, and Jessica Sharzer (also writer of the supremely fun Nerve) shows she has a keen eye for good writing. But the show belongs to Kendrick and Lively, both of whom shine and deliver a crowd-pleasing thriller – maybe not something to see with a friend, though.