You know that friend that pushes you out of your comfort zone and teaches you to do things you never thought you would? If the answer is yes then you might connect to this black comedy thriller. If you haven’t it might connect with your adventurous side as you seek out the wild side in you thanks to two women and two performances that are completely fearless in the best possible way. The only downside is the film itself, an episodic tale squashed down to feature-length despite there being much more substance to this story, waiting to be pulled out.
A Simple Favor is about Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a widowed mother trying to be the best mother to her son while smothering him in the process. On the flip side she meets Emily (Blake Lively), a woman so consumed by her career that her son is almost an afterthought. Despite their differences these two form a friendship that oddly sustains both of them but when Emily goes missing Stephanie is forced to find out what happened to her and learn some secrets Emily would rather stay buried.
While this all sounds quite interesting it’s almost in second place to a tale all about friendship. Bear with me for those of you that have seen it because the connection between Emily and Stephanie is one that forces both to embrace the others qualities as Lively and Kendrick change their performances along the way in almost imperceptible ways due to their bond. The film is not so much about the pros or cons of friendship, just the unforeseen effects it can have and the strange and wonderful places it can lead you to.
Directed by Paul Feig of Bridesmaids fame, this is not your usual raunchy women’s comedy. While Bridesmaids had genuine moments of emotion it was more interested in making you laugh hysterically than ever making you contemplate, well, anything. A Simple Favor in comparison is oddly compelling because the flaws of these two women and the people in their respective spheres are laid out for all to see. This allows for an oddly sympathetic viewing experience despite some of the backhanded and vindictive actions of the two leads.
The idea that we all have a little darkness in us is taken to extremes here but in a playful way. We don’t know each other as well as we think we do but I think the people closest to us know what we are capable of. Be it cheating at poker or beating someone to death, deep down we know the people around us we just choose to ignore or gloss over the darker aspects. This is Feig’s perspective at least and it makes for entertaining melodrama, the kind of drama that uses pitch black comedy to enrich its characters.
This is how A Simple Favor shines as the overcomplicated plot could easily lose viewers but the performances by Lively and Kendrick go beyond the conventional stereotype of ‘women with attitude’. These are two women hiding from those around them and themselves. However Feig makes sure not to make their secrets define them, they are more than their mistakes and successes. These two people rise above their insecurities and perceived faults, completely sure in their own skin and Kendrick in particular takes great joy in revelling in this fact. Both are spectacular with Lively hiding Emily’s flaws through a subtle, quiet stoicism but Kendrick steals the show thanks to the attention to detail she adds to Stephanie’s self-contained mania and hidden grief.
There is a disjointed feeling to proceedings though and ultimately it’s a tonal issue as certain moments attempt to shock and then slide in an ill-conceived joke for levity that corrupts the flow. In the grand scheme of things its a mild complaint as this is ambitious storytelling. However it never takes its story seriously, almost as though Feig thought he was making the thriller equivalent of Bridesmaids and that is the major problem. For example Stephanie’s loss is developed enough to be relevant but glossed over because grief isn’t fun. Sure the film is fun, but it doesn’t need to be.
Resting on his comedy laurels is all well and good but Feig has two A class actors giving killer performances in a film they believe in while he is stuck in two minds about what he wants to do with it. Is it a comedy or is it something more serious, more emotional? By the end I didn’t know, I enjoyed what I saw but knew deep down that there could have been something special here. This step away from his formula may have taught him something important for the next film but ultimately this is a work in progress passing itself off as something else.