What happened to Amy? Her writer husband Nick must have had something to do with her disappearance in “Gone Girl.” What happened to Megan? Surely her tough husband, Scott, or her therapist, Kamal, or her employer, Tom, had something to do with that in “The Girl on the Train.” What happened to Emily? You have to go to the dark side of Paul Feig’s mind in the darkly delicious “A Simple Favor.”
Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a grieving widow with a little boy, Miles (Joshua Satine), and she is the epitome of the homeroom mom and mommy vlogger. Stephanie throws herself into every school activity and volunteer opportunity in her suburban Connecticut town, with a chorus of other parents judging her but not wanting to get involved. When Miles befriends fellow classmate, Nicky Nelson (Ian Ho), Stephanie sees it as a chance to bond with Nicky’s mother, Emily Nelson (Blake Lively).
Emily is the opposite of Stephanie – drinking stiff martinis in the afternoon, not seeming to care much about being seen as a good mom, putting work as a New York City hotshot ahead of her family life. Emily is married to Sean Townsend (Henry Golding), a one-book wonder author and an English professor at a nearby college. Sean is called to England as his mother has surgery, leaving Emily to ask Stephanie to pick up Nicky from school. And like that Emily is gone.
Oh dear, it’s another one of those “girl” movies that should have stopped with David Fincher. Or is it?
Based on the 2017 novel by Darcy Bell and acquired for film rights before it was even published, “A Simple Favor” teeters on the tightrope between genre film and parody, a land that Feig knows very well with his previous releases “The Heat” and “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call.” The parody side shines in Stephanie’s vlogger persona with staged kitchen backdrops with her son’s drawings, a cute MacBook laptop (in rose gold, of course) and adorable aprons. Friendship bracelets with a side of detective work to find her new best friend surely gained new subscribers to her vlog. Emily is super-duper unlikable because she doesn’t fit the mold decades of a woman’s place and look have created. Her tuxedos, fancy modern hoe and her martini glasses say, “I have no reason to say sorry.” Actually, apologizing has a whole plotline.
The secrets that unfold before and after Emily’s disappearance go beyond the novelist Gillan Flynn level of twisted and land in the world of Seth MacFarlane. For those who have read my reviews over the years, you know I tend to solve mystery movies within the first 20 minutes and hope that the remaining 100 minutes would be entertaining. Feig and his cast manage to throw thousands of red herrings and plot holes, but I could only figure out half of it before the big reveal. The suspense side is heavy at first, but then it dives into the land of clever mockery. It’s not as strong as 2015’s “Spy” because the doses of physical comedy aren’t there and you may still not know what you’re watching. Kendrick and Lively carry out the seriousness of a genre film and the laughs of a parody.
Luckily, “A Simple Favor” does not fall into the trap that “Gone Girl” and “Girl on the Train” have turned into the norm – women can be friends. Both of these movies and books have kept their central female characters apart or competing against each other, whereas “A Simple Favor” shows just how complex friendship can be.
3.5 out of 5 stars
A marriage between modern noir and clever comedy, “A Simple Favor” weaves a twisted, irresistible mystery. The film is a change of pace for director Paul Feig, known for laugh-out-loud comedies like “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat.” But the versatile director helms his most sophisticated effort yet, bolstered by strong performances from its likable leads.
The story follows Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a widowed single mother who throws herself into school activities and her mommy vlog. After her young son, Miles (Joshua Satine), becomes friends with his classmate Nicky (Ian Ho), Stephanie meets Nicky’s wealthy and mysterious mother, Emily (Blake Lively). The strikingly beautiful Emily does PR for a fashion company and is married to struggling writer Sean Townsend (Henry Golding), who works as a professor at a local university. The two women quickly become best friends, sharing martinis and dark secrets while the boys have play dates.
One day, Emily asks Stephanie to pick up Nicky from school. But after she disappears without a trace, the high-powered executive is declared missing. As Stephanie grows closer with Sean and Nicky, she is determined to get down to the bottom of what happened to Emily. Chronicling her investigation on her mommy vlog, Stephanie picks up a devoted following and uncovers much more than she ever suspected.
“A Simple Favor” is a skillfully told mystery, a mix of suburban thriller “Gone Girl” and Feig’s own 2015 espionage parody “Spy.” The fast-paced movie carefully doles out its revelations, constantly keeping moviegoers guessing.
After showing he could direct solid action and tense thrills in “Spy,” Feig deftly navigates the many moving pieces of “A Simple Favor,” from its shocking plot twists to its witty comedy. The movie is as funny as it is suspenseful, maintaining Feig’s trademark no-holds-barred humor. The film isn’t quite as tightly executed as “Spy,” with a leap in logic here and there.
Feig brings out the best in his female stars, and the same is true for “A Simple Favor.” Lively and Kendrick are outstanding as two very different characters who may have more in common than they realize. The actresses have an easy chemistry that builds throughout the film, making their onscreen friendship believable.
Using a film noir framework, the movie deconstructs the stereotypes of femininity. As Emily, the bold and beautiful Lively is the icy blonde archetype right out of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, keeping those around her at arm’s length. Lively is magnetic as a modern femme fatale, unapologetic in her menswear-inspired fashion and foul mouth. In her tailored tuxedo shirts and suits, she throws back martinis and tells Stephanie that constant apologizing is an “annoying female characteristic.”
In contrast, the meek and genial Stephanie wears ultra-feminine fashions, from polkadot sweaters to flowery sundresses, as she copes with being a single mother. She makes dainty crafts and offers first aid suggestions on her well-staged vlog. But much like analyst-turned-spy Susan Cooper in “Spy,” Stephanie grows a backbone and comes into her own as she tries to solve Emily’s disappearance, using Emily’s own advice as she develops her sleuthing skills.
Kendrick brings an innocence and warmth to the role that pairs well with her comedic timing. When she sings out loud to a rap song after making a break in the case, you can’t help but pump your own fist with her.
Coming off the success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the handsome Golding is incredibly charismatic as Emily’s husband, Sean. He plays off both Lively and Kendrick as a love triangle brews between them. Golding is almost too charming as Sean steadfastly proclaims his innocence while sewing seeds of doubt as to his intentions. Andrew Rannells (“Girls”) also stands out as a fellow father at the school.
Full of twists, turns and commentary on female stereotypes, “A Simple Favor” takes moviegoers on a memorable roller-coaster ride. Do yourself a favor and catch this flick if you enjoy a good mystery.
4 out of 5 stars