This is kind of a tricky flick to pin down. I had trouble all through the marketing trying to make heads or tails of what A Simple Favor was going to be, and even now that I’ve seen it, I still don’t entirely know. Plot-wise, this is a tried-and-true mystery-thriller, but it’s built with so many spare parts from the comedy department that it hardly resembles a tried-and-true mystery-thriller. For instance, you’ve got Anna Kendrick, someone who’s bound to bring the light humor even when she’s being nominated for an Oscar in something like Up in the Air. You’ve got Blake Lively, who has kind of played it both serious and silly with maybe only a slight preference for the former. And then you’ve got Paul Feig, who’s oftentimes going for thrills with stuff like The Heat and Spy but not before making you laugh. So for all intents and purposes, this should be a straight comedy, and sometimes it has the qualities of one, but where it really hits you is in its storytelling, resulting in an actually compelling mystery, something most films wouldn’t necessarily settle for. But this one trusts its audience to not only laugh when they should, but pay close attention and identify with the characters. Seriously, the moment you realize this is a good movie it’ll kind of take you by surprise – it taking such an unconventional approach – and at that point you’ll be so hooked every twist and turn will make you feel like you’re on an upper-middle-class rollercoaster of deception and intrigue. For the most part, anyway, as it admittedly does start to fumble the catch as it reaches the end zone. At which point it doesn’t quite know when to pump the breaks on the comedy, but the journey remains so rewarding it’ll leave you talking about it regardless as you leave the theatre.
In A Simple Favor, widowed mother of one Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) befriends another mother in Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) when their sons begin hanging out with one another. Though seemingly the perfect, preppy parent, Stephanie looks up to Emily, who appears to be the perfect, confident woman with a perfect marriage to her novelist husband Sean (Henry Golding). However, things are not as they seem, as Emily keeps herself a true mystery to everyone who knows her, and soon becomes the center of an actual mystery when she is labeled missing after failing to return home from a work trip. Determined to track her new best friend down, Stephanie will take steps solve her disappearance and seemingly all the other peculiarities about her life, all the while playing mother to both children. This of course leads her into some tricky waters as she attempts to assist and comfort the grieving Sean. Regardless, Stephanie will do what she does best, multitask, in the hopes of solving Emily’s disappearance, not to mention Emily herself.
Again, this is a blended mixture kind of movie, there being plenty of witty one-liners and gossip gags that any audience will be attuned to, but it should be noted that there’s some really dark material here, things that border along the lines of what HBO likes to give its viewers. So if taboo subject matters you wouldn’t normally see in your everyday wide-release film makes you uncomfortable, you might want to brace yourself for some heavy sh*t. That being said, A Simple Favor does such a good job executing those dingy themes that they hardly feel dingy at all. In fact, and because the characters are so well drawn out, when they do these sordid things it comes off as understandable and almost titillating. I often try not to pay attention to anyone else in the theatre with me, but in this instance, I was surprised by how receptive the plethora of soccer moms and book club gals were to such events. While watching someone walk out of a movie is a relative rarity, these girls seemed to have enjoyed themselves, and I can’t blame them. A Simple Favor is always unpredictable and nuanced as it transitions between serious and silly, leaving the viewer at a loss in terms of pinpointing exactly what’s going on and where it’s going. Too often these days do films follow either their own or a predetermined formula for telling its story, thereby telegraphing how it would end only a few scenes in, so you can imagine how refreshing it was when this one continually aimed to shake things up.
That being said, this was always going to be the kind of movie that would be sold by its leading ladies, and boy do they not disappoint. While neither part is a total stretch for either of them, they own them wholeheartedly to the point where you don’t know which character you want to root for. Giving her best performance since her Oscar-nominated turn in Up in the Air, Anna Kendrick has never been more likable and relatable. And yes, she usually is, but it’s her transformation as the plot progresses that really puts this apart from her previous work. Outside of the Pitch Perfect trilogy – which is more of an ensemble – she hasn’t really had a whole lot of leading roles lately, and if there were ever a case for her to reemerge as the superstar she is, this is it. However, while she is the focal point of the story here, Blake Lively steals every single scene she’s in. If you had ever written her off as a wannabe actor after flops like Green Lantern and Savages earlier this decade, think again. She is so goddamn commanding as she transitions between sweet and cynical and amiable and caustic you’ll be wishing they’d have made a miniseries out of this just so we could get a few hours more of her delectable performance. Even more than Stephanie as the protagonist, Lively’s Emily has to be executed to a tee in order for this movie to work, and thank goodness, she delivers. She’s not going to get any awards buzz for this as this seems to already be flying under the radar – nor is it really something the Academy gravitates to – but she is more than deserving of a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Hopefully this’ll be seen more when it hits shelves in three months or so, but for now it looks like A Simple Favor will have to rely solely on word of mouth.
And I’d probably be the first one to spread the good word, that is, had the denouement been properly executed. I’m a firm believer in the maxim that the most important part of a movie – or any form of storytelling, for that matter – is the ending. Yes, you need setup and buildup and all that fun stuff to support it, but if you don’t provide a conclusion that is befitting and worthy of being the punctuation for all you’ve seen thus far, it’s going to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Granted, A Simple Favor has so much going for it otherwise that I’m still pleasantly surprised – I was expecting a blah-fest – but it does make me wish that they’d gone back for reshoots or something after test screenings went awry and given it the ending it deserved. For those of you who know the background of this film, yes, I am aware that it’s based on a novel, and though I don’t know if it was adapted faithfully, I do recognize you have to at least be faithful in that regard. Hopefully, that is. And before I start whining way too much without context, I’ll get down to the nitty-gritty and flat-out say that it gets too concerned with making people chuckle and leaving on a positive note, as opposed to staying true to its rising action and giving you the most WTF moment that would’ve put all those before it to shame. But no, instead we get a lot of farcical histrionics and one deus ex machina that is so unnecessary and plot hole-ridden that it’s almost like Paul Feig forgot which of his movies he was making and instead relied on muscle memory to finish the job. Still, should it indeed be the case that the studio got cold feet part of the way through – and I really doubt it – I’d love to see what I’d consider to be the bona fide ending in an extended edition or something. Just put it in a double-feature with the Zack Snyder Justice League cut that also doesn’t exist.
Regardless, A Simple Favor is a riveting piece of what some are calling “mommy noir” – I find that oddly appropriate – that despite what I just said is still humorous in the right doses. It gave me one of my best theatre experiences of the year, and I’d be very interested to see where this apparently nascent subgenre goes from here.
Final Score: 7/10