September 14, 2018

A Simple Favor

Single Sprightly Female

Grade: B
Director: Paul Feig
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, and Henry Golding
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Though enveloped by echoes of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, A Simple Favor has a wicked wit that makes it more enjoyable, more accessible, and at times more subversive than its genre forerunners. Much of the credit goes to director Paul Feig, whose keen ear for women’s comedy runs throughout his oeuvre, from Bridesmaids to Spy to his all-female remake of Ghostbusters. Here, Feig’s shrewd casting choices deserves principal merit, as the pairing of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively is the inspired fulcrum on the film. However, A Simple Favor isn’t another bawdy laugher. It’s a psychological thriller that embraces its dark, albeit byzantine plotting, infusing it with a farcical flair.

Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a single mommy vlogger whose perky persona masks a truly tragic and disturbing background. Stephanie has her moppet but no one else, so she’s giddy when a put-together blond mom, Emily Nelson (Lively), pays Stephanie some attention, asks Stephanie the simple favor of watching her kid, and invites Stephanie over for martinis. The Stephanie-Emily byplay is immediately engrossing, between Stephanie the mousy housemom with Kendrick’s quirky wit, and Emily the brash beauty with Lively’s California confidence. Even the eight-inch height difference between the actresses informs the power dynamics of their relationship. Indeed, for a while Stephanie’s infatuation with Emily’s attitude, lifestyle, and successful literary husband, Sean (Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians), flirts with a Single White Female-style obsession.

Suddenly, Emily vanishes without explanation, leaving Stephanie as an eventual target for both Sean’s affections and police suspicions. As the story unspools, A Simple Favor opens up new new fronts in its plot that culminate with an overly muddled final third that rushes through a cascade of patricide, fratricide, twin envy, and deceptions that become too complicated to follow—I’m still not completely sure about Sean’s allegiances at each point of the story. The film is overlong, and if it was a half hour shorter, the finished product would have been a sleek, sardonic genre entry. Despite its flaw, A Simple Favor is entertaining and the among best recent work by Kendrick and Lively. It’s a trashy potboiler, but it winks at the audience enough to let us know that it’s in on the joke.