A Simple Favour

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.



The Accountant

Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Writer: Bill Dubuque

Autism is both a tricky and sensitive subject to portray in cinema and it can lead to much umbrage when done badly. Even Rain Man, a movie that was praised for opening the door to serious and thoughtful depictions of ASD, is problematic in its misleading suggestion that those who fall on the autistic spectrum are likely to be savants. Efforts have been made over the last few decades to represent autism as the complex, multifaceted condition that it is (X+Y is one recent movie that was audacious and touching in its portrayal) but there are still movies today that fall victim to the stereotypes associated with ASD. As someone who neither is nor knows anybody on the spectrum my take on The Accountant cannot help but be limited. I do however know when a film provides a problematic depiction of its subject and when it defeats its own message and can verify that this film struggles on both counts.

As a child Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism, a condition that has allowed him to become a highly capable accountant whose practice is actually a front for several criminal enterprises.. He is hired by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), the CEO of a cutting edge robotics company, to inspect their finances when a discrepancy is discovered by their accounting clerk Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick). Meanwhile Raymond King (J.K. Simmons), the head of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Agency, is investigating Wolff’s accounts and blackmails data analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into helping him. When Wolff’s investigation uncovers evidence of foul play, he and Dana suddenly become the targets of a hitman (Jon Bernthal), forcing them to go on the run. As the body count continues to rise Wolff must use the military skills he learned from his father to keep Dana safe and learn the truth behind this conspiracy.

The movie’s problem is that it wants to advocate the cause for autism, that being the idea that different abilities can come in different forms and that we need to reconsider what we deem to be “normal”, but doesn’t know how. I’m sure the gestures and expressions Affleck provides are accurate given the research he conducted but the story he’s in doesn’t know how to treat his character. Autism is used in this film as a plot device, making Wolff a savant so that he can be the great accountant the movie wants him to be, and it’s used as comic relief, as in the awkward interactions with love interest Dana Cummings. That the movie wants to try and normalise autism is all well and good, except that it goes so far out of its way to remind us of how abnormal Wolff is and laughs at his expense. What’s even more problematic is the movie’s message about victimhood being a choice. Wolff’s condition, so his father believes, makes him a victim but only if he lets it. Instead Wolff exposes himself to deafening heavy metal music and bright flashing lights while rolling a dowel along his calves every day or so, a painful experience for him, to keep his nervous system in check. As far as this movie is concerned autism is not a condition to be managed but one to be beaten into submission.

It seemed to me that the movie thought of Wolff’s autism as more of a concept than a subject. That is, the film wanted an action hero with a mental disability because it wanted an action hero with a mental disability. By giving ASD to a character of Jason Bourne-like skills (or Batman if you prefer), it almost seems like the movie is giving itself a licence to depict Wolff as an inhuman killing machine. Using what can only be described as a “superpower” Wolff can quickly aim a gun with mathematical precision, fight as if impervious to pain, and shoot a man in the face with cold indifference. Although we do get some pretty intense action scenes out of it, they come at the expense of a meaningful, substantive exploration of a real condition that millions of people all over the world live with.

Without the autism, The Accountant would just be a standard action movie with a convoluted plot and underwritten characters. The film underuses the talent at its disposal, most notably John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor. The FBI subplot has, in the grand scheme of things, nothing to do with the main story. There is a plot twist in the third act that is beautifully underscored in its absurdity by Lithgow’s dumbfounded expression. Affleck does give a technically good performance, but does so for a character that the movie doesn’t respect. The action scenes are very good indeed and they might have been enough to make this movie had they not enabled the disrespectful (or maybe misguided is the word) treatment of this character and his condition. There is a positive to be taken away which is that this film is, I think, sincere in its attempt to become a part of the conversation taking place. It fails, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it means that Hollywood is trying. This failure could end up being the motivation that inspires other filmmakers (perhaps even those who actually are on the spectrum) to do better.


The Voices

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Writer: Michael R. Perry

I’m at a loss over what I should write in this review mainly because I think that The Voices, much like Cabin in the Woods, is the kind of film where the audience should go in knowing absolutely nothing. This is a film with such a strange and unconventional concept that it becomes all the more fun if you go in not knowing what to expect. It is a film that throws many surprises at the audience and constantly plays with their perception and expectations. In my opinion any discussion of the plot details would steal away from the element of surprise which is why my recommendation for anyone who enjoys black comedies and isn’t too squeamish is to not read any further. Go watch the film and enjoy. However, since I have a word count to meet, I will go on further about the film for the benefit of those who don’t really care about knowing the plot details. I’ll be careful not to give away anything that you can’t find out from watching the trailer.

Seriously, if you want to be surprised, don’t read any further.

The plot revolves around Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a guy with a ridiculously sunny disposition. He is always wearing a grin and bright, colourful clothing, he is absurdly polite to everyone in his life, and he seems blissfully clueless about everything. He meets regularly with his therapist Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver) who talks to him as if she were talking to a six-year-old boy and who seems happy with his progress but concerned with the ambiguity of the answers to her questions (“Do you hear voices?” “Not really”). When he develops a crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton), a sophisticated co-worker in his office, he helps organise the office party in an attempt to get closer to her. It is clear to all, especially Fiona, that Jerry is not a normal guy but he is mostly shrugged off for what most people take to be his harmless goofiness. No one, not even Dr. Warren, realises the true depths of Jerry’s troubled, depraved mind.

The audience is given a twisted insight into Jerry’s mind when he goes home to the apartment that he shares with his pets. There he has conversations with his two alternative personalities, his dog Bosco and his cat Mr. Whiskers (both voiced by Ryan Reynolds). Bosco is Jerry’s faithful, dim-witted companion who consistently reassures him that he is a good person and Mr. Whiskers is his furtive, abusive abettor who urges Jerry to act upon his baser instincts. The interactions between these three are comedy gold. Jerry’s impulsive nature eventually gets the better of him when an encounter with Fiona ends with him comically stabbing her to death by accident. His innocence is almost endearing as he politely apologises to Fiona’s bloody corpse. He takes the body back to his flat, chops her into dozens of pieces and stores her severed head in his fridge. Later when he tries to move on and forget his crime, Fiona’s head joins in the psychotic conversations as she and Mr. Whiskers impel him to become a serial killer. This compulsion becomes harder to resist when the kind and comely Lisa (Anna Kendrick) starts to show an interest in him.

Ryan Reynolds is someone I’ve never rated as an actor, put he absolutely kills it in this role (pun intended). His childish expressions and goofy mannerisms are perfect for portraying Jerry’s innocent simplicity. Due to a trauma that took place during his childhood, Jerry is very much still a little boy and he lives in a bubble through which he sees the world as this bright, colourful, wonderful place. When Jerry goes back to taking his anti-psychotic medication in an attempt to go back to normal, he becomes frightened and distressed to find that the normal world is a dark, horrible place where his home is filthy and covered in blood and his pets don’t talk. He immediately abandons his medication in order to return to the dream world. Reynolds is absolutely hilarious as he portrays Jerry’s ingenuous struggle to not become a serial killer (and, incidentally, he is also a very decent voice actor).

The film is able to convey a darkly comic tone that adds a light-hearted hilarity over the dark, twisted themes. Everything in Jerry’s world is shown to be lively and vibrant with bright colours and sunshine all round. The film is also able to convey humour through the exaggerated violence and gore that is depicted from a clumsily gruesome murder to a talking severed head. All of this makes for a darkly funny and enjoyably fucked up film. With that in mind, not everyone is going to like this film. Some people are going to find it too silly, some are going to find it too weird, and some are going to find it too messed up. However anyone who is prepared to not take this film seriously and enjoy it for its depravity and weirdness will have a great time.