The life of the suburban mom takes a sharp and thrilling turn in Paul Feig‘s new film, “A Simple Favor.”
The director known for brilliant comedies like “Bridesmaids,” “Spy,” and “Ghostbusters” now turns to the dark side with this thriller about an overachieving Connecticut mom who searches for her missing best friend.
Anna Kendrick is Stephanie, a persistently perky mother of one. Widowed some years before, Stephanie turned her focus to becoming a mommy vlogger. Her vlog episodes range from craft projects to party planning. And Stephanie uses her creative skills to sign up for anything and everything in her son Miles’s classroom. Stephanie’s loneliness is brilliantly introduced within the first few minutes, as the other moms (and a dad) hang back and watch her, making their snarky comments about her eagerness as she signs up for the school carnival, snatching up several jobs at once.
But that very day, Stephanie finally gets the chance to talk to Emily (Blake Lively), whose son Nicky is in the same class as Miles. The two talk briefly and then, suddenly, Stephanie finds herself invited to Stephanie’s house in the middle of the day to drink martinis while the boys have a play date.
Emily works in the city, directing public relations for an Important Fashion Designer. She is all fancy suits and a vicious tongue. Stephanie is immediately intrigued because Emily is everything she isn’t and kind of wishes she was. Emily is the kind of woman that scares other women, but in a way that draws you in like a gravitational force.
Both Kendrick and Lively are perfect for their respective roles. Kendrick embraces Stephanie with gusto, looking oh so adorable in her cute skirts and cardigans. Her constant chipper attitude masks years of hidden pain. Stephanie is a woman with secrets and heartache, and is easily dismissed because she never seems to have a bad day. And Kendrick knows how to show those buried hurts without ever making it obvious.
Lively exudes coolness on every level. Her sleek, polished suits establish the kind of sexiness that people are drawn to without even realizing it or being able to explain why. She walks around her house complaining.The house is such a money pit. Her husband is uninspired. Everything in her exotic and intriguing life is just so boring for her. But most of her frustration is with her husband, Sean. He wrote one novel ten years ago and hasn’t done anything interesting since. Through it all, Lively delivers her biting dialogue with ease, taking down everything around her with a few perfectly pointed barbs.
And then Stephanie meets Sean (Henry Golding). He seems nothing like the man she described. He is beautiful and smart and funny, and Stephanie likes him so instantly that Emily at one point quips, “Would you two like to get a room?” Golding plays a slightly different character from his heartthrob role in “Crazy Rich Asians” this summer. But between the two films, the question must be asked: where has Henry Golding been hiding all this time?
Stephanie likes her new friend and, being the caregiving mom that she is, she extends an open offer to Emily to help out anytime she needs. Picking up Nicky, taking her job at the school carnival, etc. It isn’t long before Emily takes her up on the offer and Stephanie is taking Nicky home from school nearly every day.
But on one of those days, Emily asks for a simple favor. That simple favor is, once again, to pick up Nicky because there’s a crisis in her office. When Emily still hasn’t come home the next day, Stephanie starts making calls. Sean is in London, visiting his sick mother. Emily, though, hasn’t been seen by anyone. And then they make the call to report a missing person.
The script is based on a novel by Darcey Bell. Jessica Sharzer adapted it. With pitch perfect dialogue and a story that references many notable works of classic film, this is a polished screenplay that won’t get as much attention as it deserves.
As for direction, precious few men know how to direct films that center on women. Paul Feig is one of the few. He truly understands how to capture the turmoil that women face. And he knows how to communicate the inner struggles women hide beneath the emotions they are willing to display. Feig doesn’t get enough credit for being a true ally for women on film. And one of the reasons he’s such a strong force is that he knows to surround himself with brilliant women. His screenwriters and producers are almost always women. He encourages his female stars to speak up about the work. If Hollywood had more directors like Feig, it would be a much safer and classier place. And probably funnier, too.
There are so many great things to say about “A Simple Favor” and the fine people involved. It is a twisting thriller that is also very funny. A good mystery gives the audience enough pieces to puzzle everything out on their own, but leaves them guessing until the end. That’s exactly what you get with this film. Every time you think you know where it’s going, something else happens to send the story hurtling in another direction.
It isn’t all perfect. There is a kind of major plot hole, and a few potential red herrings that never go anywhere. But the story is so engrossing and the performances so great that those problems don’t feel like problems so much as things to shrug at.
The trio of Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, and Henry Golding is a great one. Each is entertaining on their own, but putting any combination of the three in a scene together is electric.