Let’s make one thing paramount: ‘A Simple Favour’ is nothing short of ridiculous. Far from the film that glosses over revealing the darker side of celebrated comedic director Paul Feig, it is a gonzo Lifetime thriller that’s as sickly vicious as it is hilariously audacious, and somehow it comes together all the same. Beginning as a traditional suspense noir in the vein of ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The Girl On The Train’, the film soon opts to deconstruct its antecedents rather than parallel them, and once it embraces its melodramatic flavour is when the film shines brightest. It isn’t always smooth sailing, and mileage will certainly vary on whether one’s willing to traverse its tongue-in-cheek convolution, but if you can take the leap, it guarantees one aberrantly entertaining affair from a director and cast clearly relishing the opportunity.
Adapted from the novel by Darcey Bell, the film follows Stephanie (Anna Kendrick, ‘Pitch Perfect’ franchise, 'Up In The Air'), an overeager single mother whose life consists of helping organise her son’s school activities and uploading vlogs of various crafts and recipes online. By chance, she begins to form a friendship with fellow mum Emily (Blake Lively, ‘The Shallows’, ‘The Age of Adaline’), a glamorously enigmatic woman who offers a total antithesis to the pragmatic Stephanie. But as their friendship starts to blossom with their sons meeting for regular playdates, all becomes suddenly upended when Stephanie disappears without a trace. Joined by Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’), Stephanie sets out to unravel what happened to her newfound best friend, and an entanglement in debauchery, revelations and murder quickly follows.
This is the basic narrative of ‘A Simple Favour’, but it is a film that can be difficult to summate as it offers a lot to unpack. The script penned by Jessica Sharzer (TV's 'American Horror Story'), while razor-sharp in its dialogue and exhibiting no shortage of creative avenues to take the story to wild places, can by no means be defined as lean. The film constantly faces the uphill battle to not buckle under its own weight due to its proclivity to consistently escalate its twisted tone. But in practice, the security of its two central leads provide an effective counterbalance.
Both Kendrick and Lively are terrific in their respective roles, with the pair capitalising on their public personas to their full advantage. Kendrick puts her quirky everywoman talents to great use, imbuing her character with both an energetic presence and an inherent vulnerability. While for Lively, with the conceit of Emily pervaded in mystery, she sells the hell out of the charismatic force, who is your best friend one second and someone you feel harbours more than she lets on the next. The film chooses to walk a fine line between delving into the complexity of these characters and highlighting their commonalities with the archetypes of the genre. To Feig’s credit, he clearly distinguishes that line by allowing his two leads to bleed into their established guises. The pair have never been better suited to their material, and it works wonders.
However, where the film feels most comfortable is when it gives in fully to its farcical sensibilities and goes for the jugular. The film ascends into a downright bizarre piece of work, flippantly moving past conventional boundaries, however, only after it feels secure enough to do so. For a good portion of the film, it struggles identifying whether it wants to mock the more nonsensical underpinnings of a film like ‘Gone Girl’ or whether it wants to resemble it. Thankfully, once it finds its footing and plays to the gaudy melodrama and begins deconstructing the convoluted motives and myriad of subplots so often cited in these type of films, ‘A Simple Favour’ becomes a far more engaging picture because it becomes something distinct from its contemporaries. It gains an edge from being tongue-in-cheek. Leaving no stone unturned, making the twists masterfully shocking and delivering the nastier elements with such glee it becomes amusing without losing its sense of unease. Once it pivots towards its own temerity, the result is so bonkers you wouldn’t be surprised if it gained a cult following.
Once it finds its footing and plays to the gaudy melodrama and begins deconstructing the convoluted motives and myriad of subplots so often cited in these type of films, ‘A Simple Favour’ becomes a far more engaging picture because it becomes something distinct from its contemporaries.
Unfortunately, you also have to deal with the film getting to that point. While it never descends into anything laborious, for the best part of the film’s first half, it can’t help but play as tonally unsure as to where its best suited. For a while, the emphasis towards the noir elements made the sprinkles of comedy feel relatively grating. Comparatively, when an influx of comedy took precedent, the more dramatic facets tended to emulate the hackneyed tropes it would later successfully deride. Once it decides on a tone the film is captivating to the end, but it can’t avoid feeling somewhat unassertive in the lead up.
‘A Simple Favour’ is not the film you’re probably expecting from the marketing you’ve seen or even what the film positions itself as initially. While it can be a tad uneven, if you go in knowing none of the twist and turns, it is a film that captures you in its idiosyncrasy. While also being considerably lavish, funny and deranged, you can feel the ardour from the filmmakers savouring the chance to push the envelope. ‘A Simple Favour’ puts its hand out and asks you to go with it - and if you choose to go along with it, it’s hard to not crack a grin.