Director: Paul Feig
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding
People are full of secrets, it’s a known fact. More often than not the person we think we know best in our lives has at least one secret that you will likely never be privy to. Chances are you have a closely-guarded secret too. Realising we don’t know someone as well as we thought we did (albeit with something more shocking than ‘I accidentally killed my sister’s guinea pig’) often makes for a good movie premise, particularly as it’s something we all know nothing and yet everything about. What can make it difficult to translate into film however is if the secret is, or multiple secrets are, huge, because it can become a tangled mess of lies and deceit that could result in a messy plot full of holes and loose ends. Is A Simple Favour easy enough to follow through its web of misdirection, or is it just that tangled mess of lies and deceit?
Stephanie (Kendrick) is a widowed mother of a young son who also runs her own vlog with hints, tips and recipes for mothers. Due to her son’s friendship with another young boy in his class, Stephanie meets the enigmatic Emily (Lively), a married mother-of-one who is a PR director at a fashion firm in ‘the city’ (presumably New York, as they’re ‘an hour and a half’ away in Connecticut). Emily is standoffish and extremely private where Stephanie is overly friendly and outgoing, yet they quickly become fairly close and confide secrets in each other, particularly as Stephanie becomes something of an after-school nanny for Emily’s son. One afternoon, Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son after school as she has an emergency at work and will pick him up from Stephanie’s later. After two days of no contact, Stephanie becomes concerned and calls Emily’s husband Sean (Golding), who is away in London, and he explains that Emily has done this before. Not believing all is right in Emily’s disappearance, Stephanie begins to conduct her own investigation, which gets her caught up in Emily’s life in more ways than she may have initially bargained for.
If it weren’t for the fact that A Simple Favour has a very sharp and darkly comedic edge, the mystery side of it would be all that it would have going for it conceptually, and it wouldn’t have stood its ground as well as it does. Based on the 2017 novel by Darcey Bell, it becomes apparent quite quickly that it must have been based on literature, as there are a lot of interweaving ‘mysteries’ that build to actually quite a satisfying end, mysteries that probably have more depth and tangents in the novel but needed to be trimmed down for a two-hour film. However it’s the input of the comedy that gives it just the right tone in order to make it properly entertaining. Feig’s direction is spot on, which is unsurprising given his history in directing women, particularly women with a knack for comedy. He utilises Lively and Kendrick to get the most out of each scene, each actress bringing to life chalk and cheese characters that perhaps only they could. If they had to play Emily and Stephanie as straight dramatic characters they wouldn’t have resonated so well, but the humour gives each of their characters a personality that audiences can get on board with.
Both Kendrick and Lively are superb in their roles. Kendrick has already proven her dry comedic abilities in the likes of Pitch Perfect and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Again, without the comedic aspect in A Simple Favour, she might have seemed wrong for the role of Stephanie, perhaps a little on the young side for it, but as it is she is the perfect lead with that balance of innocent naivety that could turn into smart badass pretty quickly. Lively is a pleasant surprise in perhaps her best role to date. She’s come a very long way since her early days on television show Gossip Girl. She makes you want to like Emily and to befriend her, partly because she’s so mysterious and partly because she’s just so damn cool, with her high earning job, gorgeous clothes (oh the clothes!), perfectly messy hairdo and smart, handsome, affectionate husband. But at the same time her presence makes you wary of her. Lively gets to demonstrate a good range of acting ability, something we don’t often get to see from her and something we really should see more of. In a similar but lesser way the same could be said of Golding. His role as Emily’s husband Sean adds another layer to the story and so can be quite pivotal, of which Golding provides a decent performance, much better than his performance in Crazy Rich Asians. He still has a way to go to get to the level of Lively and Kendrick, who both have years of experience behind them, but with a few more years and a few more films under his belt (give him a good gritty thriller) he could potentially get up there.
There are some aspects of the film that really weren’t necessary, such as a particular point in Stephanie’s history that comes to light. It doesn’t add or take away anything substantial to the overall plot, kind of in the same way the sons of the two ladies don’t really mean anything in the long run; they’re just a pair of little MacGuffins. But what can make one forgive A Simple Favour of its trespasses is the fact it bears some similarities to a couple of other successful movies in a similar vein. One is the recent Cory Finley film Thoroughbreds, in which two young girls of completely different yet in some ways similar personality plot to commit a terrible crime. It has that same darkly comedic tone and features two women (albeit a bit younger) of similar status in life that perhaps have too much time on their hands. The other film it resembles is David Fincher’s Gone Girl. This one was also based on a novel (by Gillian Flynn) and has a similar weave of mysteries that build into something bigger than it begins life as. If you have seen Gone Girl and then watch A Simple Favour (or vice versa) you’ll also notice a big similarity in one of the main plot points too. Gone Girl does not have the same tone as A Simple Favour, as it is a darker story and takes itself far more seriously, however they both have women at the forefront of something twisted and deranged that gives female performers a chance to show just what they can do.
The first act of A Simple Favour breezes along nicely. The second act builds the mystery. The third act gets a little difficult to keep up with but mostly gives you everything you need, meaning the web that Emily weaves in her disappearance doesn’t confuse but will keep your brain in gear and keep you guessing. At times you might think you have it figured out and label it predictable, but don’t be so hasty. Between the characterisation and plot there’s an area where the audience slot in as near voyeurs in something private and secretive that is enticing and intriguing. It’s not perfect, but if this film tells us anything, it’s that nothing, and certainly nobody, is.