'A Simple Favor': Film Review

A cocktail that looks better than it tastes.

Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively play suburban-mom BFFs, one of whom goes missing, in Paul Feig's cheeky neo-noir.

After helping redefine what funny women could look like, sound like and do onscreen, Paul Feig takes a left turn with the seductively mounted but underwhelming neo-noir-comedy A Simple Favor. A twisted tale of toxic female friendship, the film offers its share of pleasures: eye candy in human, sartorial and real-estate form, as well as the unmistakable flair of a director and performers who know their way around a piece of pop entertainment. But the result leaves you scratching your head. The mystery isn’t how or why one of the main characters disappears halfway through; it’s what drew Feig to the project to begin with.

If you squint hard enough, you can almost see it. As much as any working American filmmaker, Feig adores women: He’s given us two glorious female-fronted farces, Bridesmaids and Spy, and one solid one, The Heat; his Ghostbusters reboot didn’t work, but was so filled with affection for its actresses that one was tempted to give it a “thought that counts” pass. And in A Simple Favor, there are plum parts for Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, appealing stars whom Feig guides smoothly through the plot’s sudden swerves and swings.

But the movie never sheds its aura of talented people trying to class up cheap material. Adapted by Jessica Sharzer (Nerve) from Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel, A Simple Favor pulls from a plethora of sources — Gone Girl, Rebecca, Gaslight, Double Indemnity, Diabolique — some of which the screenplay literally name-checks; it’s less homage or even pastiche than a bargain-basement mash-up of various superior inspirations.

Feig works hard, for the first 40 minutes or so, to put his imprint on it all, an effort bolstered by Kendrick’s reliably excellent timing as a perky Connecticut helicopter mother who befriends Lively’s gorgeous mean-girl mom. Yet despite some giggles and delicious touches (Rupert Friend as a bitchy designer? Yes, please, and thank you), the tongue-in-cheek tone and satirical targets feel tired: Something-rotten-in-the-state-of-suburban-Mommyhood themes have at this point been unpacked ad nauseum, and dysfunction-lurking-beneath-carefully-curated-lives narratives all but exhausted. Movies and TV series have gone there, again and again, from Desperate Housewives to Big Little LiesBad Moms and far beyond.

Maybe that’s why A Simple Favor, in its second half, stops trying to wring new comic juice from the story, instead sticking to a fairly standard missing-person thriller template. Feig gives it polish and pace, but there’s little he can salvage in terms of genuine surprise or sense of purpose.

Stephanie (Kendrick), a widow raising a grade-school-age son, Miles (Joshua Satine), is the kind of manically enthusiastic mom who volunteers for every role at every school event — eliciting eye-rolls from a Greek chorus of fellow parents (including underused scene-stealers Andrew Rannells and Aparna Nancherla). When she’s not busy making everyone feel inadequate, Stephanie vlogs, chirping away to her “followers” about fresh-baked cookies and gazpacho.

Emily (Lively), whose son Nicky (Ian Ho) is in Miles’ class, is Stephanie’s opposite: a glamorous career woman — she has a fashion job in Manhattan — with a dashing husband, Sean (Henry Golding, deploying his suavity to less potent effect than in Crazy Rich Asians), and a parenting style that could charitably be described as minimalist. When she invites Stephanie over for a drink one afternoon, Stephanie practically trips over herself. (One of the film’s truest — if hardly earth-shattering — insights is that the allure of the Cool Girl is eternal; high-school social dynamics survive long after high school is over.)

The two women start hanging out regularly at Emily's sleek modern mansion, downing martinis and swapping secrets. Or, rather, Emily expertly extracts Stephanie’s big secret (and it’s a doozy), softening her voice and narrowing her eyes in a masterful simulation of sincerity; you get why the prey stumbles right into the predator’s trap.

These scenes are the most compelling, and not just because of the shivery Sapphic subtext that, with a single kiss, Feig cheekily turns into text. The actresses make a fun odd couple, Lively’s casual hauteur bringing out Kendrick’s well-honed screwball fidgetiness. Emily is amused by Stephanie, and turned on by the power she has over her, while Stephanie is just tickled this rebel goddess is giving her the time of day. We know the friendship is a sham, but we want to see more. 

Unfortunately, the movie has other plans. One day, Emily calls Stephanie asking for the “simple favor” of the title: to pick up Nicky from school and watch him for a few hours. When Emily never returns, Stephanie goes into detective mode, digging around Emily’s past and vlogging about her missing “best friend.” She also gets, ahem, much closer to Sean. Is Stephanie more like Emily than she, or we, thought? Who was Emily, really, and was her life as fabulous as it seemed? More pertinently, do we care?

Lots happens from that point on — there’s a corpse in a lake, a creepy Christian sleepaway camp, Jean Smart in full crazy-lady drag and a pile-up of double-crosses — but a nagging sense of “so what?” lingers despite the considerable craft behind and in front of the camera. Most striking is the film’s failure to make Stephanie’s transition from goofy goody-two-shoes to bold badass much fun — an indication of Feig’s difficulty weaving the comedic and noir elements into a satisfying whole.

The director does keep things looking sharp (DP John Schwartzman fills his frames with light and color, a purposeful, if not wildly original, visual counterpoint to the the narrative nastiness) and sounding chic (lots of vintage French pop). A Simple Favor also tosses around a worthwhile idea or two about contemporary female identity — how women are pigeonholed into roles that stifle their complexity. But the movie never achieves that tingly, naughty blend of humor and danger it seems to be aiming for; one wonders what Francois Ozon or Pedro Almodovar might have done with this material.

That said, it’s a testament to Feig’s gifts that, as with Ghostbusters, the final impression isn’t that he wasn’t up to the task — but that he was probably too good for it.

Production company: Feigco Entertainment
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, Eric Johnson, Dustin Milligan, Bashir Salahuddin, Joshua Satine
Director: Paul Feig
Screenplay: Jessica Sharzer (based on the novel by Darcey Bell)
Producers: Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson
Executive producers: Mike Drake, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis, Jason Cloth
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: Jefferson Sage
Editor: Brent White
Costume designer: Renee Ehrlich Kalfus
Music: Theodore Shapiro

Casting: Allison Jones, Ben Harris

Rated R, 116 minutes