A Simple Favour Film Review

Best served with a cocktail in the middle of the day

Few movies manage that precarious balance between parody and sincerity, the way A Simple Favour (dir. Paul Feig) does. It satirises the melodramatic murder mystery soap while at once being a modernised recreation of it, a genuinely cinematic midday movie thriller based on the popular novel by Darcey Bell.

Mostly, a movie that flirts with parody will either lean too far into spoof territory (the Scary Movie franchise) or fail to genuinely sendup the genre it’s parodying and become simply an entry in that very genre (Deadpool). Where Scream (1997) managed to be both a teen slasher movie and a clever sendup of the genre, A Simple Favour’s screenwriter Jessica Sharzer indulges in the joys of a melodrama while standing at enough of a distance to wink and nudge the audience. It’s a tricky balance that results in a movie that’s fun and silly, even if it lays it on a little thick with plot twists.

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I realise that ‘genuinely cinematic midday movie thriller’ doesn’t sound like a passionate song of praise, but I mean it to be entirely complimentary. Having caught a few midday movies on sick days staying home from school, I developed an appreciation for the genre. To sustain the attention of the half asleep or distracted viewer at home in the middle of the day, a midday thriller mixes a cocktail of trashy intrigue that encourages its audience to sit up straight in their recliner or turn off the vacuum cleaner to listen.

A Simple Favour has this in spades. Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a hardworking single mum who takes good care of her kid, makes video logs for enthusiastic hobbyists and signs up for every extracurricular activity, earning vitriol from less engaged parents. This, in the midday movie, paves the way for disruption to a carefully calibrated life—all the better if that disruption is an erotic one.

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That erotic disruption comes in the form of Blake Lively’s Emily Nelson, who steps out of her car in slow motion, dressed androgynously, a sophisticated fashion guru taking style cues from some hipster future decades ahead. Nelson makes cocktails with aplomb, pops pills with abandon and calls her kid ‘little dude’ so you know she loves him—just, like, in a cool way. Lively’s Emily is all secrets and confidence. The dialogue, cleverly hokey, has her encouraging the brittle Stephanie to never apologise for anything, or expressing disaffected disgust towards her ultra-modern mansion. Lively is right at home here.

Stephanie is enamoured with Emily, hinting at a possible romantic entanglement. Stephanie meets Emily’s husband Sean, played deplorably by Henry Golding, whose blank-faced reception of the increasingly absurd events around him seems to suggest a forthcoming twist in which he, unbeknown to anyone, is both a) an android; and b) was fooling everyone. Flanked by Kendrick and Lively, he sticks out like a broken thumb. The midday movie intrigue kicks in when Emily begins to call on favours from Stephanie, namely that she picks up Emily and Sean’s kid from school a few too many times. Pretty soon Emily vanishes, leaving Stephanie to wonder what next to do and Sean to (unconvincingly) behave as though he cares.

The movie’s sleek sheen, courtesy of cinematographer John Shwartzman, Jefferson Sage’s meticulous production design and the appeal of its leads elevate it to something far more entertaining than softcore erotic thriller trash, but the most charming thing about it is how it never loses sight of its genre inspirations. Comedy, drama, thriller and satire are all rolled together so that it becomes a bit of a tonal mishmash, but there’s an intelligent, ironic edge that remains consistent. Its selection of French pop songs is pitch perfectly self-conscious for its tone.

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Stephanie’s journey to figure Emily out is obviously better left up to audiences to discover, but its worth remarking how the increasingly ludicrous list of red herrings is always kept grounded by Kendrick’s performance. As an actor, she has the kind of quality that makes her impossible not to notice, like someone at a party whom you never meet, but whose presence you were always aware of. This quality of Kendrick’s is sometimes irksome (50/50), but here it couldn’t be better utilised. Her jittery, self-conscious Stephanie, quick to apologise and slow to distrust, means that her clueless detective journey provides a great growth for the character.

A Simple Favour is best enjoyed with a gin and tonic in the middle of the day. You figure it’s probably a bad idea, but that’s kind of the point. Go against your better judgement on this one.

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