Director: Paul Feig
Screenplay: Jessica Sharzer
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells
Runtime: 117 Minutes
The mass migration of airport page-turner paperback thriller novels into box-office titans has certainly weeded out a very specific audience type, wherein the same readers who gobble up the desired novels at haste to recommend their copies to friends can feel a recognition of their new favourite thing of the moment when handled by titans of industry and genre.
Paul Feig isn’t the name that would immediately come to mind when adapting something like this to screen. That’s not to say that books of this ilk belong in some sort of side-line. The best of them can be thoroughly entertaining pieces of fiction, and handed to seasoned masters of the form can make lurid trash sing through composure and confidence in an elevation of such material.
Great works can certainly be made out of questionable material, that has been proven time and time again. But whereas others like David Fincher might grant the source material more gravity through precision and stoic craftsmanship, the deep pleasures found in A Simple Favor come from watching its makers throw every last bit of enthusiastic energy at Darcey Bell’s mishmash suburban murder mystery and then some.
The novel centres on Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a saintly fulltime mom and blogger who seeks to uncover the truth behind her new upscale best friend Emily's (Blake Lively) sudden disappearance from their small town in Connecticut.
If that sounds more than a little familiar, that’s because it really is. As if a group of boozy mums at a book club decided to write a derivative fanfic of popular recent works such as The Girl on the Train, Sharp Objects and Gone Girl. Somehow managing to pile on more and more gloriously nonsense twists and fetishist lifestyle sensibilities while displaying it in a way that might make it simpler to grasp (or more relatable) to a moderately inebriated mindset.
The whirlwind of joy that the film produces comes from the absolute havoc that director Paul Feig and writer Jessica Sharzer wreak upon the audience, by playing it up with a manic tone that feels like borderline parody when applied with Feig’s streak of dark humour. This is a beautiful looking film photographing beautiful people, all the while Feig’s eye lingering like a rascal over the immaculately dressed cast with a sexual playfulness that would have made him perfectly suited to the 50 Shades franchise were he given the chance.
That’s the other winning combination in the excellent casting of Kendrick and Lively as opposing onscreen presences who perform fantastically together and apart onscreen. Kendrick balances out her adorkable qualities as a single mum with a dark past very well with the turns she takes later on. While Lively is a near revelation as Emily, a high-functioning professional with sociopathic tendencies and cutting line reads. The Shallows proved how much range she can reach through charisma alone, but this is her full ability finally come to fruition.
Having a supporting cast as strong as this helps a great deal too. Henry Golding as Emily’s husband Sean makes a second great turn this year after Crazy Rich Asians. Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla and Kelly McCormack are great as scathing onlooking parents, and Rupert Friend, Jean Smart and Linda Cardellini transform cameo turns into scene stealers.
The infection of the tone sets in early on, but sustains as the barmy nature of the whole exercise starts to settle in, and this is all while trying to avoid giving away the ridiculousness of the plot as it goes on, with riffs on tropes and ticking off boxes from Hitchcock to Clouzot at a rattling speed. The fun Feig and Sharzer manage to wring out of heightening it all is irresistible.
Hell, almost too much so. As it moves into the final movement it almost threatens to numb the effects with turn after turn taking place in the final confrontational scene. There’s also a framing device presented as vlog posts that kind of undercuts the suspense. But it feels like the most heavily scripted film that Feig has worked on since before Bridesmaids, and it shows in the way it manages to pull so many of its divergent threads and throwaway details into something approaching a whole by the endpoint.
A Simple Favor is an eclectic hoot that is probably going to throw as many audience members as it is going to sweep up. It’s a sexy, funny, charged work of dark comedy that throws it’s trashy text like a hand grenade and lets the sparks fly across its gorgeously dressed décor, with two powerhouse performances right at the centre.