This genre-bending film slickly pulls together the worst of both comedies and thrillers. The chic, powerful Emily (Blake Lively) draws fellow mum and awkward homemaker Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) into her home life and then suddenly disappears, leaving Stephanie to figure out what happened.
Director Paul Feig is best known for the Melissa McCarthy helmed Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, and The Heat. None of these are thrillers, which is what A Simple Favor apparently is. The screenplay was adapted from Darcey Bell’s book of the same name, which has been described as “Gone Girl on amphetamines,” and Jessica Sharzer (Nerve, American Horror Story) has written a movie that upholds the B-grade noir vibe.
If the film were a comedy, the asides and dead-end plot threads could add to the film. Unfortunately, A Simple Favor is not funny. Therefore, it’s a thriller.
Kendrick’s character is a wholesome mommy vlogger trying to prove she isn’t as nice as she seems – she can solve mysteries and wear eyeliner, just like a Cool Girl. The film is unclear on where this inner darkness comes from, at turns suggesting it’s because of Emily’s influence or because of her deep inner darkness (never seen). Songs by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot play whenever Stephanie is making herself at home at Emily’s place, suggesting that Stephanie’s inner dark self is French.
The complex and weird backstory of Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie “I’m No Saint” Smothers is something no-one should have to sit through – but we do. Flashbacks show us her self-induced tragic past, none of which is relevant at all to the ongoing plot.
Another timewaster is Homeland’s Rupert Friend, featuring as Dylan Nylon, Emily’s designer boss and one of the many needless obstacles Stephanie must navigate. Nylon fingers Stephanie as a potential suspect in Emily’s disappearance and she points right back. The detective investigates neither of them, and the entire exchange amounts to nothing.
Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding is perfect as Sean, the sensual but sensitive husband, just trying to be a good Dad, a decent professor, and hide an affair with his TA. He’s well-cast in a senseless role, making the audience feel for him as he switches back and forth on our Guilty Radar. Did Sean have something to do with Emily’s disappearance? Does anyone care? No, not at all.
All anyone cared about was that Lively got less screen time after Emily’s disappearance. She’s a magnetic force, making a one-note, sociopathic character utterly hypnotic and almost sympathetic. Putting her opposite Anna Kendrick is a bizarre and irredeemable casting choice.
One highlight of the film is the costuming. The award-winning Renee Ehrlich Kalfus did the costume design for the film, which is possibly its best aspect. Lively would be a vision of beauty in a mud-drenched tarp, but Kalfus has somehow made her even more ethereal. The blazers, hard lines, pinstripes, and statement jewellery make her even more imposing than the statuesque beauty already is. You never doubt she’s in control of every situation until the end, when a girlish 50s rockabilly dress suggests a submissive role in the events about to ensue.
Kendrick is also dressed perfectly in Gap t-shirts, blue jeans, and pom-pommed skirts. She never looks comfortable.
Audiences should also expect to be uncomfortable. The film weaves its way between genres, never fully landing anywhere recognisable. That being said, it is very pretty to look at – and the constant unnecessary twists will keep viewers switched-on.