Watching the trailer for A Simple Favor, I thought director Paul Feig, who's known for comedies (The Heat, Spy, Bridesmaids) had decided to try his hand at a Gone Girl-esque thriller. I love creators who don't stay in their little Hollywood branding boxes, so I went in excited to see something new.
As it turns out, A Simple Favor isn't remotely a stretch for Feig. The only party who went out on a limb with this movie is whoever decided to market it as a straight-faced thriller when it's actually a quirky, sometimes downright wacky, dark comedy. Think less Gone Girl or even "Big Little Lies" than "Desperate Housewives."
Once you adjust to the fact that A Simple Favor doesn't offer much in the way of psychological suspense, or even psychology, it's a fun ride. But if the film has any substance at all, it's due to a central performance of singular and often hilarious conviction.
Anna Kendrick was born to play Stephanie, a widowed mommy blogger who wears kitty-emblazoned sweaters and lectures other parents on their insufficient commitment to kid-friendly activities. She's perky enough to give the dead a caffeine overdose, but the manic flicker in her eyes hints at a dark side.
When Stephanie meets her seeming opposite — martini-swilling, foul-mouthed fashionista mom Emily (Blake Lively) — she gets a chance to explore her id. Emily teaches Stephanie to stop apologizing — "it's a fucked-up female habit" — and coaxes her into revealing her secrets. Then she vanishes without a trace.
It's a scenario ripe with possibilities — so many that the screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on Darcey Bell's novel, seems reluctant to choose among them. Is Emily a con artist or a victim? Is her handsome husband (Henry Golding) bereft or happy to be rid of her? Is Stephanie a dauntless amateur sleuth on her friend's trail or a Single White Female eager to steal Emily's glitzy life?
Turns out, most of these things are at least partially true, but because they don't add up to a coherent whole, A Simple Favor quickly goes off the rails. Sharzer has written for "American Horror Story," a series notorious for its haphazard approach to plotting, and it shows. While the movie's twists and turns are undeniably entertaining — in a meme-friendly, OMG-can-you-believe-it way — they don't always make sense.
The main casualties are the characters. Despite her occasional bursts of feminist rhetoric, Emily never rises far above the femme fatale stereotype. Vamping around in ultra-stylized menswear ensembles, she's almost a parody, and Lively just doesn't have the presence for this larger-than-life role. Stephanie initially seems more complex, but the script muddles her character to a point where it's hard to believe in her, much less care about her.
As female-bonding stories go, Feig's comedies are actually a lot less absurd than A Simple Favor. Sometimes it's tempting to think the film is a stealth satire of all those domestic thrillers that promise to subvert the good/bad girl dichotomy only to end up embracing it. More likely, though, it's just replicating the same old pattern: While the good girl has a few things to learn from the bad girl, perk, pluck and domestic virtues invariably triumph over glamour and worldliness.
A movie with this one's sheer level of WTF always has cult potential, and Kendrick's career deserves the boost. But sometimes a lot of plotting adds up to a lot of nothing, and it's too bad A Simple Favor didn't fulfill its potential to be something less, well, simple.