In director Paul Feig’s dark comic thriller, A Simple Favor, Blake Lively plays Emily Nelson, a married businesswoman and mother who cheerfully admits she’s the world’s worst mom. “The nicest thing I can do for my kid is blow my brains out,” she casually states with little regard as to how shockingly frank the comment sounds to her new best friend, Stephanie (Anna Kendrick).
Stephanie, on the other hand, is the world’s best mom. Recently widowed, Stephanie throws herself into after-school projects as if it was her duty, volunteering for any and all tasks her son’s teacher requests. She’s the type that’s happy to sign her name on project after project, often leaving little room on the bulletin board for anyone else to volunteer. Not that the other parents want to. They’re exhausted just watching Stephanie operate. The young woman also vlogs. She records online video blogs with cooking and shopping tips to moms everywhere. Clearly, Stephanie likes to keep busy.
After-school, when picking up their boys, Stephanie and Emily meet and strike up a conversation. In order to allow their boys some play time, the strikingly attractive, f-bomb dropping Emily invites the more reserved Stephanie over for some afternoon martinis. “Emily is going to eat Stephanie alive,” observes one parent from across the road as the two women leave the school grounds together.
Even though the mothers could hardly be more different, they appear to bond. Then one day Emily calls, explaining that things are crazy at the office and that her English husband, Sean (Henry Golding) has had to fly on an emergency trip to London where his mother is sick. Could Stephanie do her a simple favor and pick her son up after school and give him something to eat? “Of course,” replies Stephanie, who then asks, “Does he have any diet restrictions?” “Yeah,” Emily dryly responds in typical Emily fashion. “Don’t feed him shit he doesn’t like.” Then something odd occurs. The business and martini-loving woman vanishes.
Like the debut novel by author Darcey Bell upon which Feig’s movie is based, A Simple Favor is superbly plotted with a snazzy, Hitchcockian flair of murder, mystery, and double-crossing that twists, turns, circles back, then twists and turns some more. While events initially appear to conclude around the 42-minute mark – you’re left wondering, so, what happens now? – what follows is scene after scene of continual surprise that proceeds in that vein right up until the conclusion, 75 minutes later. Where some in the literary world considered Bell’s novel convoluted – Gone Girl on steroids – the film overcomes the more outrageous elements of the story and its larger-than-life characters by adding a fresh layer of dark humor throughout.
Among the film’s many surprises, the real surprise is just how funny it is. When Kendrick’s vlogger mom becomes a tenacious Nancy Drew, determined to get to the bottom of what happened to her friend, she begins her investigations by sneaking into Emily’s high-fashion office and demanding to talk to her boss, aloof upscale fashion designer, Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend). When Nylon attempts to brush her aside, Stephanie quickly tells him that if he doesn’t speak to her she’ll expose his company as a place of business that uses Indonesian children as cheap slave labor to make his clothes. “They’re not Indonesian children,” he insists, adding with some hesitancy, “They’re… Vietnamese teenagers.”
As the film progresses and secrets about Lively’s Emily are slowly exposed, we discover that Kendrick’s vlogger mom has some secrets of her own. Often when telling stories about herself, what we’re hearing is not quite the same as the flashbacks we’re seeing. Earlier, when Emily asks the mom vlogger whether she’s married, we catch a glimpse of a car that veers off the highway and intentionally slams into a concrete slab. “Widowed,” is all Stephanie replies, without explanation. And when police detective Molloy (Andrew Moodie) questions her and asks if she’s ever had to deal with the police before, we flashback to an earlier moment when two officers are standing in her doorway, ready to ask her questions or inform her of something, yet Stephanie answers with a straight face, “No.”
Opening with a French language version of the 1967 Andy Williams hit, Music to Watch Girls By, played over an upbeat sixties credit sequence, full of saturated colors in sliding split screen, there’s a tone set with an immediate promise that something entertainingly stylish is about to unfold. With its overall upbeat rhythm, its razor-sharp edits from Brent White, its performances from Golding, Kendricks, and particularly Blake Lively, who here has her most accomplished screen role to date, plus its wicked sense of humor, courtesy of writer Jessica Sharzer’s adaptation, A Simple Favor proves one thing. Just like John Cho’s recent surprise thriller Searching, after a summer of huge, overlong, teenage blockbusters full of wall to wall dazzling visual effects, it’s still the smaller adult films that keep the quality of storytelling alive at the cinema.
MPAA Rating: NR Length: 117 Minutes