A Simple Favor the new Paul Feig film, written by Jessica Scharzer based on the novel by Darcey Bell, is a step out of the highly successful comfort zone for Feig. Feig’s most famous hits include the box office giant Bridesmaids (2011) the sharp, funny Spy (I loved this film) and his other massive hit The Heat (2013). Feig cut his teeth directing episodes of great television comedies like Weeds, The Office and Nurse Jackie. Sidebar: He also wrote the cult favorite pilot Freaks and Geeks and directed an episode of Mad Men-racking up four Emmy nominations.
A Simple Favor is much more serious than his comedic feature film blockbusters, but not too serious. It attempts a Hitchcockian flare blending comedy and suspense and is mostly successful at it. Feig proves once again a director who loves women; A Simple Favor has two strong female roles, with their relationship central to the plot. Ann Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a peppy, suburban mother, who despite being a widow seems perpetually positive, helpful and naive. Blake Lively, in a smashing breakout performance, plays Emily Nelson, a glamorous, yet crass alluring housewife whose son Nicky is close pals with Stephanie’s son, Miles. Henry Golding, fresh from the megahit, Crazy Rich Asians – which is still playing in theaters, plays Emily’s handsome, urbane husband, Sean. Sean is a novelist, who no longer writes, so he teaches at a local private liberal arts college. This makes Emily the primary bread winner. She is head of PR for a clothing line founded by pretentious, snooty, fashion designer Dennis Nylon (a delicious Rupert Friend). Despite Emily’s success the couple are having financial woes, as their income cannot live up to their lavish lifestyle, including a sleek, gorgeous cinematic house.
Stephanie and Emily become fast friends, despite of, or perhaps of their enormous difference in personalities. Stephanie’s gooey girl next door is fascinated with Emily’s towering confidence, commanding demeanor, foul mouth and chic appearance. Who wouldn’t be? Lively is fantastic as the alluring Emily. Often dressed in bow ties and riding clothes, Lively makes it clear who wears the pants in her family. Channeling fashion images reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall, Lively’s movie star charisma is full tilt here. Kendrick, a very good actress (with an Oscar nomination to prove it) certainly holds her own and is a perfect emotional and physical foil to Lively. Kendrick’s improvisational style, while in the moment adds to her character’s quirky core, as a prim single mother who is about to go on the adventure of her life. Stephanie isn’t without her secrets and Emily is deft at uncovering them.
When Emily disappears, Stephanie is thrust into a mystery that slowly reveals layer after layer of Emily’s true identity and dark past. Sean, not exactly squeaky clean, belying his outward appearance, begins to lean on Stephanie a bit too much during the police investigation. Stephanie, starved for affection, and seduced by the beautiful house, unfortunately takes his bait further complicating matters. Despite Emily’s pluckiness and cleverness and several twists and turns of the plot, the film deflates a bit when Lively isn’t on screen. How can it not? Ironically the more we find out about Emily, the less interesting the film becomes. Furthermore it’s not really that surprising of a reveal.
For me, this makes the second half of the film a little less intriguing than the first half, even though Stephanie’s character arc and Kendrick’s performance are both so good. Perhaps because it so focused on plot and delivering information, whereas the first half of the film felt much more character driven and relationship focused. The flashbacks and the stagey climax, which resembles more of a play, didn’t exactly dazzle me.
However, the film is still good, and the performances are all great, even a small part by Broadway veteran Andrew Rannells who has some of the funniest moments in the film. Feig’s comic chops are in full swing and there are some actual LOL moments. No one takes anything too seriously, this isn’t Gone Girl-and I would recommend the film for a very enjoyable evening.