A Simple Favour
Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively shine in this savagely entertaining thriller from 'Bridesmaids' director Paul Feig.
A Simple Favour is an unashamed delight: a deliciously twisty mystery with the zest and kick of a strong gin martini (and the visible gloss and sparkle of one too). Based on Darcey Bell's 2017 novel of the same name, the film slings its thrills with an upbeat vibe from director Paul Feig, dynamic performances from Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, plus a knowing but never mocking tone. It's the fun, fierce movie that Gone Girl might've become had it been vastly more playful, and boasts the flair that The Girl on the Train desperately needed. That's not a criticism of the former film, although it definitely is about the latter. If there's one thing that A Simple Favour knows above all else, it's how to turn a pulpy airplane read into an irresistible big-screen experience.
Kendrick plays the widowed Stephanie, a perky, perennially helpful mum who lives for her young son. From overzealously signing up for every school activity that she can, to dispensing mothering tips on her vlog, she's a maternal wind-up bunny, to the point of ridicule by other parents (including Andrew Rannells as a snarky, scene-stealing dad). No one, including Stephanie, would've expected fashion executive Emily (Lively) to pay her any attention. The duo only start spending afternoons together downing cocktails and listening to jazzy French pop because their kids beg for a playdate. It's a chalk and cheese relationship, with Stephanie awed by her new pal's glamorous home, life and husband (Henry Golding), while Emily maintains an air of aloof, self-involved intrigue. Then Emily asks Stephanie to do her a simple favour, and nothing is ever simple again.
One of Stephanie's video blogs kickstarts A Simple Favour, instantly revealing that Emily has disappeared. That's the film's basic premise — and when the movie fills in the gaps via flashback, it sets up one of its recurring motifs. As this sleuthing story slinks and snakes along a trail of gloriously unhinged developments, the truth proves slippery. Any good thriller involves duplicity, and all notable detective tales have their fair share of zigzags. Feig frequently serves up both while simultaneously fracturing the flimsy facade of suburban bliss, letting his characters spin their stories as his images expose the reality behind them. It's a technique that the filmmaker has cause to use often, and it adds to an enjoyably devilish atmosphere.
Indeed, the director of Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and Ghostbusters might be in less overtly jokey territory than usual, but Feig's trademarks are all still on show. His latest female-focused flick throws women into a realm often populated by men, yet firmly retains its own personality. As the movie charts a knotty whodunnit narrative, it also follows its protagonists as they realise just what they're really capable of — be it nice or nasty. Furthermore, A Simple Favour brandishes a cutting, subversive sense of humour, while ensuring that viewers are always laughing with rather than at his on-screen ladies.
Even when Kendrick is at her peppiest, and Lively at her most gleefully cunning, siding with the two is consistently on the cards. Whatever Stephanie and Emily get up to — and this is a film with a body count, oh-so-many deep secrets and more than 50 shades of darkness — the actors behind them are flawless. Kendrick nabbed an Oscar nomination for Up in the Air almost a decade ago, and Lively ruled New York's Upper East Side for six seasons on Gossip Girl, but here they're both given roles that are intricately attuned to their individual talents. That remains true emotionally as well as physically, with Stephanie a pocket livewire who's enthusiastic, awkward but never out of her element, and Emily seductive yet savage whether she's decisively making the perfect drink or devastating everyone around her with the sharpest of dialogue.
Screenwriter Jessica Sharzer is in her element, too, even if a A Simple Favour doesn't initially seem an obvious companion to 2016's tech-savvy Nerve, her previous screenplay. Both movies share a knack for finding the sweet spot between the silly and sublime as their warped plots turns themselves inside out, A Simple Favour more successfully so. Sharzer's scripts veer into ridiculousness but float above B-grade schlock, and throw winks at the audience yet never act like the whole thing is just an ironic gag — although the source material assists considerably in this case. With help from Feig, Kendrick and Lively, the end result is slick, smart, slightly sleazy and ruthlessly entertaining, and remains thoroughly committed to making viewers eat up every moment.