Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells
Director: Paul Feig
Writer: Jessica Sharzer
This movie was advertised with the tagline ‘From the darker side of Paul Feig’ and I’m still struggling to understand what that really means. A director who usually excels at female-centric comedies, Feig has taken more of a noirist turn with A Simple Favour except that it never feels like he ever figured out what this movie really is. Sometimes it’s a chilling, seductive neo-noir in the vein of Gone Girl. Sometimes it’s like a high-budget Lifetime movie with its trashy story and soapy acting. And sometimes it’s a female buddy-comedy with an occasionally twisted sense of humour. The movie is constantly jumping all over the place and I never quite managed to get a grip on it. A Simple Favour is so inscrutable, it’s never made clear where Feig’s comicality ended and his sincerity began. At times it feels like he’s making an honest attempt to draw us into this captivating story with this titillating mystery at its centre, at others it feels like he’s inviting us to laugh at the movie’s convolutedness and melodramatic silliness. The movie is all over the place and, while undoubtedly entertaining, it seldom manages to be compelling.
The saving graces are Kendrick and Lively who almost, almost manage to find the order beneath the chaos and make it work. Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a single mom whose entire existence is devoted towards being pitch perfect. With a skip in her step and a ‘can do’ smile she keeps an immaculate home, volunteers incessantly for school and community activities and systematically maintains a vlog for mothers where she regularly shares her many, many tips and secrets on food, arts and crafts, and homemaking. When her son Miles (Joshua Satine) asks for a play date with classmate Nicky (Ian Ho), Stephanie is introduced to Nicky’s mom, Lively’s beguiling, enigmatic, stylish Emily Nelson. Stephanie soon finds herself in Emily’s sleek, elaborate mansion and is blown away by big city fashion executive’s personality and lifestyle. Emily is everything that Stephanie is not; glamorous, uncouth and sexually confident. She drinks martinis during the day, curses in front of her kid, and keeps a nude painting of herself hanging in the living room for all to see. She’s also married to Sean Townsend (Henry Golding), the dashing author of a bestselling novel that Stephanie once read with her book club, with whom Emily shares an active and spicy sex life.
Despite being polar opposites, the two seem to hit it off. Stephanie is completely enthralled by Emily’s charm and mystique and gets a certain thrill out of the way she is able to so keenly disarm and surprise her. Stephanie soon finds that she can confide in Emily, sharing with her the kinds of intimate thoughts and taboo secrets that her new friend so casually discloses from her own life. On Emily’s part, it’s never made clear whether she actually feels the genuine, reciprocal attachment that Stephanie believes they share or whether she’s more amused by the doe-eyed, sexually naïve woman and keeps her around the way she would a pet. That’s certainly what the other parents at the school, as symbolised by a trio played by Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla and Kelly McCormack (who might really be Siamese triplets, so attached by the hip are they) think, believing that Emily sees Stephanie as nothing more than a free nanny. Emily’s ‘simple favour’ comes into play when she calls Stephanie and asks her to pick Nicky up after school and watch him. Stephanie gamely does so of course, as she has so many times before, only this time she neither sees nor hears from Emily again.
Thus Stephanie stumbles her way into a tangled web of dark memories, secret identities, deceitful deeds, and a little bit of bloodshed and arson to boot. Far from the cool, proficient, hard-boiled, detectives that traditionally helm noir stories (including the female likes of Jane Tennison, Sarah Lund and Jessica Jones), our investigator into the disappearance of the movie’s femme fatale is the jumpy, awkward, hopelessly guileless mommy vlogger who soon learns that she is way out of her depth. The nightmarish, harshly black and white worlds of the postwar film noirs that sometimes get referenced (including one particularly funny gag about Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques) is substituted with a more cartoon-like colourful and plastic setting not unlike Desperate Housewives. Like the suburban comedy-drama of the 2000s, a Simple Favour tries to blend its mystery movie tone and story with the pulpy theatricality of a soap opera and the laugh-out-loud humour of a sitcom (there’s even a scene where Stephanie is caught by the detective trying on one of Emily’s dresses). However the overall result of this collision in tones and styles is a movie that too often feels like it’s at odds with itself.
This is most apparent in the third act where I can’t really go into details because spoilers. Without getting too much into it, there’s a confrontation near the end full of double crosses and sneaky reveals where the characters’ attitudes are in constant flux. One minute they’re treating each other seriously as if in a critical life-or-death situation, the next they’re exchanging quips and laughing along as if the whole thing were an elaborate joke. It’s not that films can’t be dark and funny at the same time, of course they can. It’s that A Simple Favour is so inconsistent in its tone that the progression never feels natural. When a character gets hit by a car in one scene, it happens in such a way that is clearly meant to be framed as comedic but is instead so jarring and cartoonish compared to what had taken place before that I was more bewildered than amused. There are certainly some who will be taken in by the movie’s haphazard style and they’ll have no trouble enjoying the ride all the way through. But for me the intrigue that was conjured by the film’s two captivating leads, the alluring imagery and the swinging French pop soundtrack was let down by this atonal clash.