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.

★★★

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Ghostbusters

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia, Charles Dance, Michael K. Williams, Matt Walsh, Chris Hemsworth

Director: Paul Feig

Writers: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig


Before delving into this film I suppose I ought to address the absurd controversy it has provoked. There seem to be two separate camps of thought on the Internet that have made the most noise on this issue. One regards the original Ghostbusters movie as some kind of sacred holy text that must never ever ever be violated by any kind of a remake or revival. The other is a fanatically extreme form of feminism that believes anyone who could possibly dislike a movie starring four women for any reason must be a misogynist. Both sides are as ridiculous as they are irrational and the uproar they created is one worthy of a South Park episode. Anyway, my basic attitude leading up to the movie was this: I love the original Ghostbusters movie but was open to the prospect of a female-led reboot. I like the director and the actresses they chose but didn’t like the trailer they released. However good movies get bad trailers all the time (and vice-versa) so I went in hopeful that the movie might still end up being good. In the end I thought it was okay.

Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a physics professor at Columbia University, is being considered for tenure when she discovers that a book she co-authored about the paranormal has been republished. Fearing for her reputation she contacts her collaborator Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) with whom she hasn’t spoken in years. Abby agrees to take the book out of circulation if Erin agrees to help her and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), an eccentric engineer, investigate a claim of paranormal activity. They head over to a museum where they discover an actual ghost, confirming everything they had theorised years ago. They decide to follow through with this discovery and open a business on the upper-floor of a Chinese restaurant for the study and capture of ghosts. Joining them is Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), the subway worker who gives the team their first lead, and Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), their attractive but dim-witted receptionist. Together they face a great, otherworldly threat that only the Ghostbusters can stop.

As ludicrous as the controversy is, it unfortunately left an impact on this film. There was so much pressure for this movie to match up to the first Ghostbusters that it ended up trying to appease the fans with awkward call-backs and forced cameos. It’s a shame because whenever the movie actually did its own thing, it worked pretty well. The dynamic between the four leading ladies worked for the most part and could have been taken even further. The action is a lot more creative and inventive than in the original and is often fun to watch. The visuals, while hardly groundbreaking, are decent and match the style of the original while still looking different enough to give the movie its own tone. Not everything new works well (the villain is bland and forgettable) nor is everything old stale (Slimer’s cameo rocks) but ultimately the movie’s biggest weakness is that it is too afraid to be its own movie.

The movie’s second biggest weakness is the inconsistency in its humour. For every joke in this movie that works, there is one that does not. I hope that whoever was in charge of the trailer got sacked because, in a movie that has some very funny jokes and moments, they were somehow able to cherry pick the absolute worst and most cringeworthy of the bunch. The inconsistency is present throughout the film and is often frustrating. Having Holtzmann snack on a can of pringles during their first ghost sighting is quite funny. Having that ghost puke on Erin is not. The movie is full of these moments where it temporarily wins you over with something smart or humourous only to lose you straight away with something stupid or banal. Near the end when the Ghostbusters were battling possessed parade balloons I found myself going along with it alright until the entry of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man brought me out all over again. It is this mismatch that made it difficult for me to really get drawn into the movie.

The movie’s best resource is its main cast, which played a vital role in saving this movie from its lesser qualities. Wiig and McCarthy’s characters are the straight players of the ensemble so they don’t get many opportunities to be funny. When the chances do present themselves though, they make it work (Wiig’s delivery of “Burn in hell” is comedic gold). McKinnon, with her crazed expressions and deadpan deliveries, is splendid as Holtzmann, the film’s strongest character. Jones also does well with what she has, although what the movie gives her is quite limiting. I liked the idea of turning the practice of having a stupid but attractive woman in every comedy on its head by casting Hemsworth as the male equivalent but found the execution uneven. Sometimes it works but other times they make him too stupid. Between them they cannot make every joke work because the material is often just too weak but, when the movie does give them something good, they knock it out of the park.

All in all, I neither love nor hate this movie. I don’t think it’s a betrayal of the original Ghostbusters but it certainly isn’t its equal. The Ghostbusters of 1984 was its own weird and wonderful thing that can never be recaptured (we know because they tried in 1989), so I’m glad that they at least tried to do something different with the property. I just think that the result is a mixed bag. The movie is funny and creative enough that I can understand why someone would like it but it is also tedious and awkward enough that I can understand someone disliking it. In either case it most certainly isn’t worth all of the abhorrence and antagonism that has been generated around it. Anyone who claims that this movie has ruined their childhood needs to get a life. Anyone opposed to the idea of a major franchise making a movie with a female ensemble needs to grow up. At the end of the day Ghostbusters is a clumsy but sometimes enjoyable mess and you can either take it or leave it.

★★★