REVIEW – ‘A Simple Favor’

A great neo-noir thriller requires a few things to be a true cinematic success. It needs to dance the line between dark and light, creating a delicious mix of both sinister and sweet. It must throw in plenty of unexpected twists and turns which genuinely shock an audience. It should feature a dangerously unpredictable and wickedly scheming femme fatale. And it needs a certain visual style to match its intoxicating tone. Case in point – David Fincher’s shamefully Oscar-ignored (no, I’m still not over it) Gone Girl.

With A Simple Favor, the latest film from criminally underrated director Paul Feig, it’s a case of two out of four ain’t bad. The film certainly looks and sounds gorgeous, thanks to some lush costume design and a divine French soundtrack. Blake Lively giving a spirited and intriguing performance that may be the best thing she’s ever done. However, sadly, the narrative falls over itself with a neverending wave of convoluted twists that never quite make sense and a dizzying calamity of constant tonal shifts that are rather jarring, to say the least.

Continuing Hollywood’s obsession with film adaptations of pulpy book club page-turners (think Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and Big Little Lies), A Simple Favor is based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Darcey Bell. Dorky widower Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a chirpy wannabe mommy vlogger with a perky web series, filmed from her homely kitchen and featuring tips, tricks, and recipes for busy Moms. It’s hardly a viral sensation, but Stephanie perseveres with her chipper attitude and desperation for portraying an image of motherly perfection.

With too much time on her hands, Stephanie is the overachieving Mom the other parents at her son’s school love to loathe. She volunteers for too many school activities. She’s never late for school pick-up. And she’s far too involved in her young son’s life for her own good. Without a friend in the world, Stephanie is desperately bored and horribly lonely. Enter Emily Nelson (Lively), an enigmatic glamazon Mom, dressed exclusively in designer menswear and a killer pair of Louboutins.

When their sons become new friends, Emily begrudgingly agrees to a playdate at her immaculate and stylish home, with Stephanie gleefully tagging along. With her high-powered job as Director of Public Relations for a fashion label, a penchant for a super-strong gin martini and foul language, and aversion to normal motherly behaviour, it becomes apparent Emily is hardly the maternal type. Stuck in Connecticut, thanks to the unemployment status of her formerly-famous writer husband, Sean (Henry Golding), Emily is trapped in suburban hell.

At first, candid, caustic Emily appears to detest sweet, naïve Stephanie. But once the gin starts flowing, the two form an unusual friendship, with Stephanie equal parts terrified and infatuated by her new (and only) friend. The drinking/playdate sessions soon become a regular occurrence, with the pair venting their troubles to one another and revealing a few sinister secrets from their equally troubled pasts. One afternoon, Emily asks Stephanie to perform the innocuous titular “simple favor” of picking up her son after school while she’s stuck at work.

When it comes time for pickup, Emily is nowhere to be found. With the police baffled as to Emily’s unexplained disappearance, Stephanie takes it upon herself to investigate, all while vlogging her experience and discoveries. This naturally brings instant internet fame, with thousands of moms desperately wanting to know what happened to Emily. What follows is a whirlwind path filled with twists, lies, revelations, and a plenty of juicy secrets.

The hardest task for a film critic in reviewing a film like A Simple Favor is avoiding spoiling anything major. That’s especially difficult when its narrative is exhaustingly overloaded with plot twist after plot twist after plot twist. This is like Gone Girl on amphetamines, and not in a good way. Fincher’s film revolved around the conceit of one big kicker of a surprise, whereas A Simple Favor delivers a good dozen or so, with most feeling entirely forced and terribly far-fetched. This may work in the pages of a trashy novel, but it falls hard on its face in a film.

One is generally expected to suspend some disbelief while in a cinema, but there’s a turning point where it simply becomes far too much. A Simple Favor does not know when to call it quits. There will likely be some completely won over by its rollercoaster journey, which is entirely fine. It just felt far too exhausting with little payoff, especially with a running time creeping close to two hours. This all comes to a head with a finale that is downright laughable and tragically silly. It’s a nonsensical conclusion that achingly attempts to be shocking but ultimately fails to really get there.

That’s not to suggest A Simple Favor is a total trainwreck. The first half an hour is actually quite flawless, as the film deftly sets up its main players and teases us with tidbits from their twisted backstories and complicated lives. It sucks you into the mystery of Emily’s disappearance perfectly, leaving you completely invested in uncovering the truth. Unfortunately, from here, things just get wildly out of control, with the film zig-zagging through far too many tonal shifts.

The film never lands any particular tone effectively enough, which is somewhat of an issue, given it’s attempting to tackle several of them at once. There is an admirable effort to mix light and shade with a continuously spiralling dance between thriller and comedy. But the laughs fail more often than they succeed and the sinister elements generally feel a little too goofy to be taken seriously or elicit any genuine shock value. The final result is still entirely entertaining and enjoyable, but it wears out its welcome and takes far too long to reach its absurd conclusion.

On the plus side, A Simple Favor features some of the year’s best costume design, with designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus crafting some downright stunning ensembles for Lively to dazzle in. Emily has a particular fondness for wearing menswear and effortlessly succeeds in making it work. Although, let’s be honest; Blake Lively could wear a burlap sack and still somehow make it glamorous. Emily’s impeccable dress sense creates a sublime juxtaposition when compared with Stephanie’s garish and dowdy motherly attire. The film is further elevated by a gorgeous French soundtrack, featuring some charmingly quirky tracks from Saint Privat, Brigitte Bardot, and Jacques Ductronc. C’est si bon!

Performance wise, Lively really steals the show here with a brash and audacious performance that’s a delight to watch. It’s a departure role for the underrated actress and she completely runs with it. She’s played the bad girl before, but never quite like this. Lively is clearly having the time of her life losing herself in such a bold and unabashed character whose idea of maternal caring is telling Stephanie her son’s dietary requirement is “don’t feed him shit he doesn’t like.” Sure, it doesn’t hurt Lively is devastatingly gorgeous, but it’s only one part of Emily’s infectious allure, and Lively has a grand time unveiling her character’s many layers.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for Kendrick, who has played the awkward nerd role so many times now, it’s becoming far too familiar. That’s not to say she doesn’t fit the role like a glove. But it’s a glove she’s worn before and there’s nothing particularly new from her here. The film also completely wastes a glorious supporting cast that is barely given anything to do. Andrew Rannells steals a few moments as a bitchy parent who loves to quietly judge Stephanie from afar with his Greek chorus of equally catty parents. Jean Smart plays her usual drunk and confused schtick as Emily’s long-suffering mother. And Rupert Friend turns up as a campy “bargain basement Tom Ford” fashion designer who deserved more scenes than he’s given.

The end result is a frustrating film which held such great promise but ultimately feels like a huge letdown. The trailer teased an intriguing thriller with a dash of comedy and plenty of mystery. That’s all certainly present in the final product. It’s just very little of it works particularly well. A Simple Favor is a little too trashy and messy to be anything more than a Sunday afternoon timekiller. There’s nothing innately wrong with that, but it certainly could have been so much more.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, Kelly McCormack, Aparna Nancherla, Dustin Milligan, Rupert Friend, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart
Director: Paul Feig
Screenplay: Jessica Sharzer
Producers: Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson
Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Production Design: Jefferson Sage
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Editor: Brent White
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: 13th September 2018 (Australia)