It isn’t easy getting close to Emily. Even her own husband, Sean, sometimes feels like an outsider in his own marriage. The mercurial Emily is a high-powered public relations director for a premier fashion company, and her take-no-bullshit attitude allows her to tell her own boss to get lost on occasion. You have to be willing to treat powerful people like dirt, she says, because sometimes that’s the only way to get through to them. The only thing that can compete with Emily’s job is her devotion to her son, Nicky.
When Emily allows Stephanie – whose son Miles attends the same elementary school as Nicky – into her orbit, Stephanie feels both elated and intimidated. She runs a somewhat successful mommy vlog where she posts about things like making friendship bracelets. Stephanie doesn’t quite know how to handle Emily’s sophistication and no-nonsense demeanor. One day Emily asks Stephanie to pick up Nicky from school and watch him for a few hours while she deals with a minor emergency. Five days later, Emily has vanished. Determined to find her new friend, Stephanie plays detective and uncovers dark secrets from Emily’s past. What she finds will change her life forever.
Both A Simple Favor’s character types, specifically Emily, and its plot mechanics owe a great debt to the 2014 film Gone Girl and the book on which it is based. The author of that book, Gillian Flynn, created what is proving to be one of the most zeitgeist-capturing and imitated works of fiction of this decade. I, and many other critics, said similar things in 2016 with the release of The Girl on the Train, another movie based on a popular book. That movie and this one can trace their thematic roots directly to Gone Girl, and both suffer to differing degrees by comparison to the ground-breaking original.
If The Girl on the Train was the overwrought and needlessly confusing facsimile of Gone Girl, A Simple Favor is the soapy, slightly campy one. That last attribute apparently diverges from Darcey Bell’s 2017 book on which the movie is based. It’s an element introduced by screenwriter Jessica Sharzer – who has worked on TV’s American Horror Story, a property known for its own flirtations with camp – and director Paul Feig. Until now, Feig has been defined solely by his work in comedy. Active in both TV (Freaks and Geeks, The Office, Arrested Development) and film (Bridesmaids, The Heat, 2016’s remake of Ghostbusters) Feig added a comedic tone to A Simple Favor, and the result makes the picture more fun than it probably should be, but also less substantial than it might have been.
It’s a tone that is a perfect fit for the movie’s star, Anna Kendrick. An actor who has honed her effortless charm in movies like Pitch Perfect and its sequels, Kendrick strikes a good balance between comedy and drama here. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of Kendrick’s befuddled Stephanie. She anchors the film as the mommy vlogger who gets caught in a web of deception, but who has some dark secrets of her own.
Joining Kendrick are Blake Lively as the mysterious Emily, and Henry Golding as Emily’s has-been novelist husband Sean. Lively does a fine job of presenting Emily as an enigma both to Stephanie and to us, but (and the comparison might not be fair, but it’s necessary) she never reaches the depths of nuance that Rosamund Pike does with Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Lively’s performance is complemented by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ superb costume design. Kalfus’ wardrobe selections add a crucial credibility to Emily’s projection of sophistication and poise.
Feig’s direction, however, leaves much to be desired. The director relies heavily on his TV training for much of the camera set-ups and blocking of A Simple Favor. So, while Feig delivers a competent, workmanlike product, the multitude of shot-reverse-shot style set-ups, and boring compositions are uninspired and decidedly uncinematic.
The phrase I used above, “depths of nuance,” and the lack thereof, applies to much more than just Lively’s performance. That’s a fitting description for the whole of A Simple Favor. The screenplay and editing made crucial errors in getting me to buy into character motivations and actions. After Emily goes missing, Stephanie and Sean become much closer. Because Stephanie was so important in both of their lives, this is a believable development, but the storytelling didn’t make me believe it. There isn’t enough connective tissue showing their relationship grow. The same goes for the fact that Emily is supposed to love her son Nicky more than anything in the world. We know this because Emily says so a few times during the movie. We never actually see it in practice.
More problems arise with the movie’s structure in the last act as the successive twists, turns, and revelations of the plot pile on top of one another. The result is an entertaining, fun time, but with not much else under the surface.
As fun as the comedic element makes the movie, it simultaneously holds it back from ever kicking into a higher gear when it comes to suspense or a real sense of stakes. One line of dialog from a tertiary character speaks to this. It comes because of the most ridiculous twist in the final minutes of the movie, and it takes any dramatic air out of the moment that the movie created. I won’t spoil the moment here, but it belongs in a farce, something that until that moment, A Simple Favor was not. It forced me to write in my notes, as a rhetorical question to Feig, “Why would you do that to your movie?”
Still, I can’t deny A Simple Favor’s more entertaining, sudsy charms. Most of those are due to Anna Kendrick’s delightful screen presence. If you don’t take the movie too seriously, you’re bound to have a pretty good time.
Why it got 3 stars:
- I can count A Simple Favor as a recommend, but just barely. In the last half-hour or so the movie starts to unravel, but as a whole, it’s a good enough time to make it an enjoyable experience.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There’s a scene midway through the movie where Stephanie sells her house. It’s part of a montage, and we see a realtor standing next to the “for sale” sign. Later, she turns up in the house again like she never sold it. You can use logic to explain it away as Stephanie never actually going though with the sale, but it’s pretty clear that we are supposed to believe she sold it. That struck me as sloppy storytelling from Feig.
- Jean Smart turns up in a cameo role. Her character provides a big twist to the story, but it comes off as somewhat boring and almost like it’s from another movie.
- The same goes for the few parents in Stephanie’s circle of “friends.” They add a little more comic relief, but they also feel dropped in from another movie, and they aren’t particularly interesting, either.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- I felt very out of place at this screening. I could tell within about 5 minutes of arriving that I was not in the target demographic for A Simple Favor, which is clearly under 30 and female. That’s fine, I enjoy hundreds of movies that aren’t necessarily meant for me, it was just humorous to notice how different I was from the rest of the audience.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
Author Angie Thomas had a huge hit last year with her novel The Hate U Give, which focuses on 16-year-old Starr Carter. The book chronicles Starr’s life, and the racial tension of the community in which she lives, when she witnesses a police officer shoot and kill her childhood friend. I loved the book, and when I heard it was to be adapted for the screen, I knew the movie would have a lot to live up to. The film is here, directed by George Tillman, Jr. and featuring Amandla Stenberg as Starr.