21st Sep2018

‘A Simple Favour’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Joshua Satine, Ian Ho, Rupert Friend | Written by Jessica Sharzer | Directed by Paul Feig

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With its gleeful, primary-coloured, ‘60s-style opening titles, complete with jaunty French pop, you might think you’re watching a breezy rom-com. Then we see vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) breaking down in tears live on camera. Moments later she’s in the midst of a farcical meet-awkward with her new hero, Emily (Blake Lively). Tone wavering like a drunk opera singer, we can quickly see the problem with Paul Feig’s confused foray into “serious movie” territory.

Through her “Hi, Moms!” online channel, Steph announces that her (supposed) best friend Emily has gone missing. We’re told the story of how Steph and Emily met and became close. Steph was seduced by Emily’s confident, carefree charms, and her elegant brand of elegant housewife alcoholism.

There’s a solid triangle at the film’s core. Stiff and fussy and saintly, Steph is a natural irritant. Emily is gorgeous and seductive and loose. She’s easy to love for the likes of Steph; even easier for husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding), with whom she enjoys a passionate yet combative relationship. Emily takes advantage of Steph’s good-natured dorkiness. It’s a power struggle without much of a struggle.

One day, Emily suddenly dumps her kid on Steph and then disappears. Effectively stuck with Emily’s defenceless offspring (a child conceived in mid-air, he’s literally adrift), Steph is now straddling two families, while conducting her own investigation into her missing friend. She’s partly aided by Sean, who’s a bit of a drip. But what he lacks in parenting and practical skills he makes up for in good looks and good company, and he and Steph naturally become close.

There are rumours that Emily is still alive. The kids have sighted her. How will she react when she finds that Steph has moved into her luxuriant home and shacked up with her husband? The plot thickens, and dark secrets are gradually unearthed – not just about Emily’s past, but Sean’s and Steph’s too.

There are some neat details dotted throughout the film. I like how, during the course of her investigation, Steph finds everyone with whom Emily has come into contact to be a functioning alcoholic. And Feig craftily shoots his flashbacks with contradictory voiceover, making them unreliable – although it is usually an excuse for another coarse joke. And this is where A Simple Favour comes unstuck.

As with Ghostbusters, where his brash style largely failed to gel with the family-oriented tone, there’s an incongruence here which makes it feel like Feig (and we, for that matter) would rather he be doing a different kind of movie. Namely, a broad, confrontational comedy like Bridesmaids or his best, The Heat.

Because Feig’s love of wordplay, put-downs and f-bombs are ill-fitting for a genre more suited to controlled, tense drama. Occasionally there’s a smart line that sounds congruent (“Mommy already has a playdate with a symphony of antidepressants,” Emily sighs). But too often Jessica Sharzer’s script (adapted from Darcey Bell’s novel) gets bogged down in crassness, non sequiturs and farce. Peopled by tired caricatures of the fashion industry, Rupert Friend stalks Emily’s workplace like a character from Zoolander. The incompatible tones hit the roof during an absurd yet predictable final act, which feels interminable.

This would be a career-best performance for Kendrick, were it not for her character’s unconvincing arc. Steph is someone who makes professional vlogs for a living, yet her consummate sense of order and rationality seems to come and go in a bizarre bipolar fashion. Steph admits to having a dark side, but her shift into being a competitive bitch never convinces (it took whole seasons for such transitions to occur in Desperate Housewives).

With an active police investigation proceeding and suspicious detectives swirling everywhere, Steph is narrating her private investigation into Emily’s disappearance on a hugely popular vlog. It’s a highly unlikely course of action and appears to be a simple contrivance to provide ongoing narrative exposition.

Plot beats are connected by the thinnest of tissue. There’s a huge amount of coincidence and blind luck, and key clues are breezed past as if Feig is impatient to be getting to the next comedy exchange. Near the end, the backstory is explained in an almighty info-dump of Shutter Island proportions – always the sign of an unbalanced script.

A Simple Favour is much more of a Paul Feig film than the Gone Girl-like trailers would have you believe. Taken on those terms – as a Feig joint in crime genre clothing – it is an occasionally fun and quite vicious little comedy. But as a work of dark drama it is very predictable and disappointingly slight, and far below the calibre of even The Girl on the Train, let alone David Fincher’s classic.

A Simple Favour is out in cinemas now.

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