Stephanie Smothers (played by Anna Kendrick), a recently-widowed single mother, seems like your average, everyday suburban supermom. When she’s not volunteering – some would say a bit excessively, much to the chagrin of the other parents – at her son Miles’ school, she’s scheduling play dates with Miles’ best friend Nicky. And on top of that, she runs her own mommy vlog, chalk-full of helpful home remedies and tasty recipes. The only thing that Stephanie seems to not have time for is friendship. Enter Emily Nelson (played by Blake Lively), the workaholic mom to Nicky who you’d be lucky to see even picking her son up from school – the outward antithesis of everything that Stephanie represents. After a chance meeting one day, naturally, they become friends. Sharing (real) martinis and (even more real) secrets, the pair grows closer with every sip of their glasses. One day, Emily asks Stephanie for a simple favor: pick up Nicky from school and watch over him until she can get home from work. That’s the last that Stephanie hears of her friend, as she subsequently disappears – and Stephanie feels that she’s the only person who’s truly concerned for her friend’s whereabouts.
Based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell, director Paul Feig (of BRIDESMAIDS, THE HEAT, and GHOSTBUSTERS reboot fame) plays it safe with his latest effort behind the camera, yet still manages to deliver an overall enjoyable experience. The film’s promotional materials, including its posters and trailers, give off a very Hitchcockian vibe to its premise, and the film’s big twist also treads that line as well. But Feig manages to bring his own flavor to the genre, creating a comedy-mystery-thriller hybrid that should go down easy with audiences.
The two leads, played by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, respectively, do an incredible job of carrying the film. Kendrick’s Stephanie comes off as an incredibly likeable, too-nice-for-her-own-good person, with a dark side that she’s been trying so hard to repress. Lively’s Emily plays her opposite – the yin to her yang – a rich, pompous, self-absorbed workaholic who, when not complaining about her one-hit wonder author husband Sean (played by Henry Golding, seen most recently in CRAZY RICH ASIANS), seems to show little interest in her son’s life, yet is self-aware enough to admit that Nicky deserves better in a mother, against Stephanie’s reassurances. Together, both actors move the plot forward effectively, keeping the audience in the palms of their hands with every offhanded quip, as the narrative goes from one jump to the next. Supporting work by Golding (who really does shine here), Linda Cardellini (as a struggling artist), and Andrew Rannells (as a fellow parent at Miles’ and Nicky’s school), round out the great casting.
Where I think the film – specifically Jessica Sharzer’s screenplay – does exceptionally well is in how much it’s able to keep the viewer on its toes. For a film that, on the surface, comes across as another predictable Gone Girl-wannabe, the film relishes its dark and (some might say) crazy turns, leading to an all-out, balls-to-the-wall third act that’s completely ridiculous and far-fetched. Yet, strangely enough, I was mesmerized by it, because that’s the point! Feig and company realize this, and want the audience to have fun with it. So while the film goes about its narrative, the viewer is still kept in the dark to its true intentions; you think it’s going to go one way, but does a triple donut halfway through and goes off in the complete opposite direction. Say what you will about the ending, but any film that can keep the audience guessing the way A SIMPLE FAVOR does will always be worth a look.
The cinematography by John Schwartzman successfully evokes the coldness of Hitchcock while still managing to feel vibrant and full of life. The color palette of the film’s first half keeps it very dry, subtle, and distant, primarily using black and white to emphasize its noir influence, while keeping any shade of actual color exclusive to Stephanie’s wardrobe. The camerawork also feels very distant, which comes off as a clever juxtaposition during the scene where Stephanie and Emily are admitting secrets to each other. The distance that the camera keeps during these characters’ most personal moment helps lead the audience to never truly embrace it, as is the film’s intent – there’s something more to discover beneath the surface.
While Feig’s previous outing (the GHOSTBUSTERS reboot) wasn’t his best, A SIMPLE FAVOR brings the director back to the forefront. Fantastic work by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively bring what could’ve been a forgettable mystery and make it must-see. Great supporting cast work, an interesting screenplay, and top notch cinematography and production make A SIMPLE FAVOR one of the more enjoyable films of 2018. While Paul Feig lost a lot of ‘equity’ with me with GHOSTBUSTERS, he has gained a lot of it back thanks to the great work done with this film, and I look forward to being able to enjoy his future efforts.
So make sure you have your ice cold gin martinis ready – this film will give you a better twist than any mere garnish can, and it just might be a little more than you can handle.
A SIMPLE FAVOR
2018 • 117 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Lionsgate
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Rupert Friend, Jean Smart