Do you ever watch a modern classic comedy like Bridesmaids or Spy and think to yourself, “This is good, but it could really use some more suspense.” No? Of course you don’t, but thankfully, for the sake of us all, director Paul Feig sure did. Enter the comedic Hitchcockian thriller: A Simple Favor.
The basic premise of this film is explained to the audience within the first few minutes as Stephanie Smothers, the widowed housewife played by Anna Kendrick, explains to the audience of her popular mommy vlog that her new best friend Emily (Blake Lively) is missing. From there, the movie backtracks to reveal the beginnings of Stephanie and Emily’s relationship. The two have sons in the same class and become fast friends after a whirlwind of play dates during which they share the most intimate details of their lives over gin martinis in the early afternoon.
Throughout the first act, Emily is revealed to the audience in mystifying glimpses through the wide eyes of Stephanie. She has a fabulous kitchen, yet never touches the stove. She boasts a risqué portrait of herself in the living room, but refuses to have her picture taken. These mini paradoxes are enough to push Stephanie to the edge of her seat as she seeks to understand this mysterious woman.
Emily’s character serves as a direct foil to Stephanie’s squeaky clean characterization and most of the comedy early in the film is derived from this contradiction. While Emily curses casually and consistently, Stephanie maintains an “oopsie” jar. Where Stephanie apologizes for every misstep or faux pas, Emily moves through the world with a general lack of regard for others.
The first act of the film generally looks and feels like your average contemporary comedy, a genre to which Feig has already shown that he is particularly adept. You could tap your foot to the comedic beats laid down as Emily amusedly watches Stephanie attempt to properly comport herself in Emily’s upside down world. However, once Emily goes missing, the tone and pace shift monumentally. The plot grows darker and increasingly convoluted. The movie begins its journey to a realm so bizarre that it is hard to believe that a mini-major movie studio like Lionsgate greenlit the project.
To spoil the details of this nonsensical plot would be a great disservice to the potential viewer. Part of the fun of the movie is the joy of attempting to tie together its many plot lines into a neat conclusion. Of course, screenwriter Jessica Sharzer seems to have had the same experience. The movie struggles to pull all of its elements together to form a cohesive whole as the third act draws to a close. Rather than coming together, the plot lines that do not fit into the final reveal are thrown off to the side. A satisfying conclusion is traded for the flash and shock of the film’s final moments which do little to ultimately disguise the plot’s poor cohesion.
Despite its narrative confusion, the film’s leads offer up dedicated performances. Lively pours on the seduction and mystery in her portrayal of Emily, occasionally to the point that the enigma of her character feels almost too obvious. Meanwhile, Kendrick pushes past the usual quirky but lovable role in which audiences are used to seeing her and dives into a much darker repertoire. It’s not clear whether or not this risk entirely pays off, but her commitment to Feig’s direction and vision is admirable. Finally, the movie’s only central male character, Emily’s husband Sean, is played by Hollywood’s latest leading man Henry Golding. Golding is fresh off the success of starring in his first major motion picture Crazy Rich Asians. In A Simple Favor, he brings to the table some of the same doe-eyed charm that he applies to his role as Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians. This plays perfectly into his character’s absolute bewilderment at the goings-ons of his own life.
Almost everything about A Simple Favor is utterly ridiculous to the point that at times it feels like a parody of the thriller genre. The characters are over the top while failing to convey any kind of real three-dimensionality, the tone changes about fifteen times during its 117 minutes (at one point oscillating between a thriller and a buddy cop film), and there are enough loose threads in the plot to stitch together yet another avant-garde suit for Blake Lively to strut around in. Does this make it a bad movie? Maybe. Will you have the most fun you’ve had in the theater all year? Absolutely.
After watching the film, it is pretty clear that A Simple Favor does not quite know who it is for or what it is trying to say. Sometimes it’s a thriller, sometimes a comedy, and other times it lives in the ambiguity of both and neither. However, do not get me wrong, that does not mean that it is not a joy to watch. The best part of this movie is its commitment to its own extravagance. You do not see this film to marvel in its cinematic excellence or its clever twists and turns, but to turn off your overburdened brain for a little while and bask in its absurdity.