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Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Simple Favor

After a brief detour into soulless blockbuster territory with 2016's disastrous all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, director Paul Feig returns to what he does best - Films where his female stars are given plenty of opportunity to play off one another and create memorable characters and relationships.  A Simple Favor attempts a tricky combination of being a suspense thriller and a broad dark comedy, and it succeeds beautifully.  This is the rare film that is hard to predict where it's going at any one time, and even though it is pretty much built around one plot twist and revelation after another, I never once felt like I was being jerked around by the plot. 

There is so much to admire here, starting with the lead performances of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively as two very different moms whose young kids go to the same school.  They strike up a friendship that is built around trusting one another with their own personal secrets, said secrets that will come back to haunt them many times during the course of the story.  But I'm getting ahead here.  Let's focus on the individual performances here.  Kendrick is a cheerful, upbeat "supermom" type, while Lively's character is cold, distant and unapologetically foul mouthed.  Yet, the two find a common ground, and the way the Feig allows both of these characters and the performances to grow and play off one another shows how he excels at intimate and character-driven films such as this.  Throw in the wickedly smart and often hilariously funny screenplay by Jessica Sharzer (adapted from the novel by Darcey Bell), and all the elements just come together to create a satisfying and genuinely surprising mystery story with an often comedic bent.

Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a single mom to a boy in elementary school who divides her time between volunteering for just about every school function available, making all the other parents feel inferior to her parenting skills, and hosting a Youtube vlog where she shares recipes and parenting tips with her viewers.  Stephanie's life revolves entirely around being a mom, so she has no social life to speak of, until she has a chance encounter with Emily Nelson (Lively).  Their two boys are friends at school, and arrange a play date, which brings the two together.  Emily has a high-powered job at a fashion company in New York City, is dressed in the finest fashions, and lives in a gorgeous home with floor-to-ceiling windows.  The two strike up a friendship while drinking martinis, and Stephanie almost seems shocked that someone as wealthy and "important" as Emily would want to be friends with her in the first place.

It is perhaps because of this shock and her desire to please her new friend that Stephanie ignores a few bizarre quirks about Emily, such as how furious she seems to get when Stephanie tries to snap a photo of her.  This, and other small moments, seem to reveal that there is something that doesn't quite click about Emily.  Behind her beautiful home, designer clothes, and attractive husband (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians), there is a sense that there is someone else lurking behind that cool and controlled exterior that she gives off.  Then, one day, Emily disappears.  She calls Stephanie out of the blue to tell her that she is stuck at work, and asks if Stephanie will pick up her kid at school.  Hours pass, and Emily does not show up or return any calls or texts.  Soon, the police are called in, and little by little, Stephanie begins to wonder about her friend and how much she really knows about what's going on. 

A Simple Favor develops an intricate and ever-winding mystery as Stephanie plays detective and uncovers the truth behind her friend and her disappearance, and I'm happy to say that it's a plot with revelations that you will not see coming.  The screenplay is so delicate in the way it slowly feeds us information and sends us in different directions that it's a kind of cinematic miracle that it works as well as it does, given how the movie is constantly shifting tones from a dark mystery thriller to a very black comedy.  This also is a movie where each twist that the plot throws at us and the multiple paths it leads us down makes sense.  It never feels like the screenplay is trying to trick us, exactly.  It's simply weaving a complex and involved story in an intelligent and entertaining way.  It rewards our attention with revelations that not only genuine surprise, but also make us want to know what's going to happen next.  When you see as many movies as I do, you start to pick up on clues that writers often fall back on.  This one kept me guessing, and I often had no idea where the plot was going to go next.

And yet, the movie never feels like its been overly thought out, or like its only desire is to fool us.  That's not the goal.  The main reason why it excels is because Feig always puts the characters and the performances front and center at all times.  These are smart, funny and sometimes awkward characters, and part of the fun is seeing how they relate or react to the twists and turns of the story they're trapped in.  That also is what makes the film work so successfully as a comedy.  Kendrick's Stephanie seems to be in over her head, but the deeper she digs into the mystery, she seems to be getting kind of a giddy thrill over playing detective and piecing the clues together.  I think a lot of people dream of throwing off their mundane everyday personas, and going on an adventure or unraveling a mystery, and Kendrick's performance is built around that secret desire.  Her transformation from a over-achieving mom to a super sleuth is one of the many joys of her performance, and it carries the film a long way.

This is simply a well through out and incredibly enjoyable movie.  You get the sense that A Simple Favor was a lot of fun to make, and it's just as much fun to watch.  This is the kind of movie where the less you know about it walking in, the more you'll like it.  Not only can I almost guarantee that you'll be genuinely surprised, but you'll get to truly enjoy just how intricate it is.

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