A SIMPLE FAVOR: Photo Featured

I never read A SIMPLE FAVOR but had been told by those I trust that it was a wildly over the top — not in a good way — exercise in silly unpleasantness. So, despite Anna Kendrick, an actor I continue to find wonderful on-screen, and director Paul Feig, and an intriguing trailer, I had low expectations for the feature.

Thank goodness the only word in that first sentence that applied to the film was silly. It turns out that A SIMPLE FAVOR is a bubbly treat. It goes down like champagne, sweet as can be with a nice bit of bite underneath.

A SIMPLE FAVOR: Cheers!
Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively celebrate the birth of a new friendship in a scene from A SIMPLE FAVOR. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

The Idea Behind A SIMPLE FAVOR

Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is one of those moms who seems to be at every function for her child and volunteering for every position. She has boundless energy. Or perhaps she is pushing down a mountain of guilt (hmm…) Her son Miles (Joshua Satine) and Nicky (Ian Ho) are best friends and demanding a playdate. Nicky’s mom Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) — a highly motivated and busy PR exec from the City — initially rejects the idea.

She becomes more sure of her choice when Stephanie opens her mouth and reveals her seemingly sweet, naïve energy. Nicky’s begging chant, however, breaks through her wall and she acquiesces. The kids get their playdate, the moms get their alcohol. From there, an unexpected friendship springs. Sure, it is often prickly — as seen in the trailer, Emily does NOT like her picture taken.

And yes, other times, it seems like Stephanie might be nothing but an unpaid nanny. But still, the best of friends. They share secrets, they help each other out, they grow close. Then, Emily disappears. While others assure Stephanie that this kind of thing is very Emily, Smothers does not buy it. Before long, evidence mounts and an investigation begins. Then, days later, it ends at the bottom of a lake in Michigan. Emily is dead. Or is she?

Before long, signs began to appear suggesting that perhaps Emily is not so dead after all. Stephanie cannot let the matter rest even as she moves into Emily’s home and starts sleeping with Emily’s husband Sean Townsend (Henry Golding, having quite the month). Is she losing her mind or was Emily never what she appeared?

A SIMPLE FAVOR: Emily and her umbrella
Blake Lively makes even an umbrella stylish in A SIMPLE FAVOR. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Writing A SIMPLE FAVOR

Jessica Sharzer’s screenplay keeps a tremendous amount of balls in the air for most of the film’s running time. Arguably more impressive than the juggling act itself is how the puzzle actually comes together. In complex mysteries where twists pile on top of twists, it rarely goes that way. More often, they end up with plot holes the size of tastefully decorated bay windows. Here, however, I was wonderfully surprised by the fairly tight fit of the disparate pieces of the plot.

In fact, the only thing I can really hold against it structure-wise is the blooming of Emily and Stephanie’s friendship. It happens during a vague passage of time. When Emily disappears, you’d be forgiven to imagine that they only just begun hanging out a week or so before. The film doubles back via flashbacks and fills in those blanks some, but for a while it makes Stephanie look even more oblivious than you initially imagine her to be.

On the dialogue spectrum, Sharzer proves to have a deft hand. After the propulsive, but not exactly witty NERVE, this comes as a surprise. Her zingers land with stinging quickness and every line seems to zip and bounce with a wonderful energy. Yes, this is a thriller but it never loses the twinkle in its eye in an effort to prove how serious it is.

A SIMPLE FAVOR: Shannon on the tele
Anna Kendrick makes some important phone calls in a scene from A SIMPLE FAVOR. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Casting The Leads of A SIMPLE FAVOR

I cannot think of anything that I have seen Blake Lively in before that she made this strong an impression in. But whatever, the past is but prologue because I am here to say, all hail Blake Lively. She is just not perfect in her performance as Emily. Delightfully nasty, deeply buried vulnerability, and great at portraying manipulation in a way that lets the viewers see the moves without making the other characters seem dumb. I doubt it is the kind of performance that will net her any sorts of awards. Still, I challenge you to find five more performances this year that more confidently and enjoyably demand your attention.

Anna Kendrick responds in kind with what is probably her richest performance since 2014, maybe? She turns her gift for an energetic and adorable presentation into the movie’s most effective mask. It covers up a woman who actually is roiling with pain from traumas, anger, and desires she has spent years suppressing. That even when she cuts loose she still seems non-threatening is impressive. It is a sign of how bone-deep the character’s self-denial is and how well Kendrick has brought that to life. I haven’t seen anyone this year convey as much about themselves with the way they kiss as she does with this role.

Golding as the third point of this mystery triangle has the most passive character. As a result, he feels the most tossed about by the script. He is just a dupe trapped between two surprisingly adept manipulators who’s gifts for obfuscation and misdirection leave obviously overmatched.

A SIMPLE FAVOR: Shannon and the kids
Joshua Satine, Anna Kendrick, and Ian Ho all settle in for a good wholesome family meal in the not-so-wholesome A SIMPLE FAVOR (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Casting The Rest of A SIMPLE FAVOR Call Sheet

Bashir Salahuddin’s Detective Summerville carries himself with this disarming friendliness that repeatedly puts the characters so at ease they almost outsmart themselves. In a different kind of film, he’d make a great protagonist.

The trio of Andrew Rannels, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla are a paper thing but so much fun. As the stay at home parents who sit on the sidelines and mock Stephanie’s apple polisher manic and Emily’s stylish barracuda on legs with equal zeal, they are like a wonderfully silly and completely unhelpful Greek chorus.

A SIMPLE FAVOR: Sean and Shannon
Henry Golding and Anna Kendrick play a game of telephone in a scene from A SIMPLE FAVOR. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Filming

I’m not sure why I didn’t expect it since Paul Feig has yet to find a style of filmmaking he can’t adapt to while making it his own, but his work here still surprised me. It has this wonderfully ebullient quality that still manages to avoid reducing the whole film to a joke.

His use of space, in particular, is striking. The ways in which he conveys the empty airless quality of Emily and Sean’s otherwise beautiful home in comparison to Stephanie’s smaller but warmer space is nice shorthand. However, what really makes it sing is how he changes his angles for the Emily/Sean dwelling as Stephanie begins to spend more time there.

Then, finally, he returns to the wide angles and empty spaces as Stephanie’s doubts about the authenticity of Sean’s affections for her and the status of Emily’s abduction begin to grow. It is such an excellent bit of work. The set dressers and wardrobe people also deserve significant props (hehe!) for the subtle ways they evolve both Emily and Stephanie’s outfits over the course of the film and the interior colors of both homes. It is small stuff but together it creates such a full story.

A SIMPLE FAVOR: Cheers again!
Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively…they…they do this a lot in A SIMPLE FAVOR. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

That’s a Wrap!

Due to the “woman goes missing and seems dead but maybe not!” nature of the movie, a lot of people have compared it to GONE GIRL. Don’t fool for that. I love GONE but this film only ever so slightly resembles it. Their energies are completely different.

That said, I also loved A SIMPLE FAVOR. If you cannot tell from all the praise above, it goes down super easy. Nonetheless, there is plenty of craft to examine and admire if you dig deeper. It has great energy, it is often genuinely funny, and both Lively and Kendrick are wonderful. Go now and have a great time.

2 Comments

  1. Joe Marino

    September 25, 2018 at 8:16 am

    I agree 100% with Tim on this one. I had little expectations for this movie and I was pleasantly surprised. Blake Lively is outstanding in this movie. Not since Sheri Palmer in seasons 1-2 of 24 have we seen such a ping-pong of is she/ isn’t she? You can’t take you eyes off Lively the entire movie. The comic timing of Lively and Kendrick was palpable. And huge props to Broadway’s own Andrew Rannells. While the movie could have used a bit of trimming, it was a great ride.

    Reply

  2. Annie Toman Sansone

    Annie Toman Sansone

    September 19, 2018 at 12:05 pm

    Looking forward to seeing it!

    Reply

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