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Simply Wicked Thriller

Anna Kendrick
Anna Kendrick
 117 Minutes
Directed by: Paul Feig
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively   
A Simple Favor

If you took a vote on which modern-day male director was best at working with largely-female lead casts, Paul Feig would get his fair share of votes. Feig, who helmed Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, all popular as well as critical hits, seems to bring out the best in talented comic actresses such as Melissa McCarthy. Now, in his latest effort, A Simple Favor, Feig has moved on from raunchy comedies to a wickedly dark, stylish neo-noir thriller without missing a beat.


A Simple Favor brings to mind a modern-day update of Otto Preminger's Laura, albeit a Laura with a Joan Crawford in the Dana Andrews role. The Andrews/Crawford character in A Simple Favor is Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a single mother who hosts a vlog for other housewives in which she discusses all sorts of fine points about recipes and similar topics. Her constant Kendrickian perkiness and desire to help out has made her one of the two least favorite mothers among the parents of her eight-year-old son's classmates. The other least favorite mother is haughty rich bitch Emily Nelson (Blake Lively).


Naturally, Stephanie's and Emily's sons become friends with frequent playdates, which gives the two mothers the opportunity to get to know each other somewhat better. The widowed, eager-to-please Stephanie is fascinated by Emily's cynical attitude about her life and her husband, hunky novelist turned professor, Sean (Henry Golding). Eventually, fueled by plenty of extra-strong afternoon martinis, Stephanie reveals her deepest secrets to Emily.


Soon after this confessional, Emily calls Stephanie with a seemingly innocent request, to pick up her son from school because Emily has been called out of town on business. Stephanie readily agrees but is then baffled when Emily never returns. Soon, Stephanie and Sean call the police, and, shortly after that, Emily is found dead in a lake by local authorities in Michigan. Stephanie is grief-stricken, but her grief soon turns into determination to find out what happened to Emily.


Movies like A Simple Favor are challenging to synopsize because almost anything that a critic says is to a certain extent a spoiler. In fact, even hinting that a critic can't reveal any more about the plot is to a certain extent a spoiler since it gets the audience wondering just what the critic won't say. However, I can say that finding out what happened to Emily involves far more than tracking down clues about her whereabouts in the few days before her body was discovered. Instead, Stephanie has to back into Emily's past, a past shrouded in secrecy to the extent that Emily had a pathological fear of having her photograph taken.


Eventually, of course, Stephanie and the audience do figure out what happened to Emily, and, not surprisingly in a movie like this, it involves a series of events that aren't very credible. Thriller audiences are generally willing to give films considerable leeway in crafting their stories, but the script by Jennifer Scharzer, who worked on American Horror Story, goes about two twists too far. As a result, the last ten minutes of the movie simply run out of steam.


Told straightforwardly, A Simple Favor would be a decent thriller with a somewhat disappointing resolution. However, director Feig doesn't play it straight from the very first scene (and clues the audience in with a bouncy score). Instead, he has the lead actresses overplay their roles just enough to make the situations comical but not completely absurd. Anna Kendrick manages one startled take after another after hearing Blake Lively's cynical takes on sex, money, and life, while Lively exudes sex appeal even when dressed in a tailored suit. (Henry Golding also deserves a shout out as Emily’s possibly duplicitous husband.)


Stephanie does learn quite a few things from Emily throughout as the film goes along, not the least of which is how to appeal to the newly widowed (and still incredibly hunky) Sean. Stephanie also demonstrates that she's picked up pointers on the business world, holding her own in a confrontation with Emily's boss (Rupert Friend), who is not all that concerned about her disappearance. Stephanie soon becomes a shrewd businesswoman, remodeling her vlog into a highly successful website that capitalizes on her innocent soccer mom appearance. Eventually, the film becomes a bit of a duel of wits between Stephanie and the audience that is trying to figure out just how shrewd she really is, with the answer coming in the movie's climactic scene.


Despite the dark, noirish tone on display at times in A Simple Favor, the movie also contains some great quotes, such as "Secrets are like margarine; easy to spread, bad for your heart." Feig establishes a bit of a tongue-in-cheek mode early and keeps it going, no matter how serious the subject matter becomes. That's a hard balancing act to maintain, and he doesn't quite manage it at times, especially when the plot contrivances are especially apparent. Still, A Simple Favor winds up being funnier than most out-and-out movie comedies nowadays.


At one time, sophisticated but slightly dark thrillers like A Simple Favor were common in Hollywood, but that type of film seems a lost art today. Filmmakers believe audiences don't want subtlety and mystery to get in the way of elaborate set pieces. A Simple Favor has no such set pieces; in fact, there's little real action or violence shown onscreen. But, thanks to some skillful handling of the plot and the two talented lead actresses, director Paul Feig has made the type of slick, tricky thriller one imagines Hitchcock making today. Despite its title, there's nothing simple about A Simple Favor.

In this clip, Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively exchange secrets.

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A Simple Favor (2018) on IMDb