A Simple Favor
2018, R, 117 min. Directed by Paul Feig. Starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 14, 2018
The key to a great cocktail is not just throwing everything in a glass and hoping for the best. It’s adding the right amount of the right ingredients, in the right way, so that even the most deranged combinations make sense as a whole. Like how even a whiff of vermouth turns a bucket of gin into a martini.
That’s what Paul Feig’s deliciously trashy A Simple Favor is: Just the right mixture of movie of the week, Diabolique, Peyton Place, Alfred Hitchcock, and The Thin Man. It may seem a switch for the Freaks and Geeks creator who made his cinematic reputation with bawdy female-fronted comedies like Bridesmaids, but the clues are in the logo card for his production company, Feigco Entertainment: A woman in a stylish 1950s dress and white evening gloves, with oh-so-sharp garden shears behind her back. It’s the sense of something wicked afoot behind the white picket fences of suburbia, and it’s up to single mom turned amateur sleuth Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick) to get to the bottom of it all – that is, unless her own filthy secrets drag her down first.
The real anchor that threatens to drag her down is Emily Nelson (Lively), who looks like she walked straight off the cover of a copy of Cosmopolitan, all long everything and oh-so-fashionable, causing Stephanie to become the oh-so-smitten kitten – not in a sexual way, just in a sense of awe. Emily has everything, but acts like she has nothing, constantly writing off her novelist husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians' Golding) as a loser, claiming that she's a great mom but showing all the nurturing skills of a cuckoo. Still, she seems prepared to tolerate the company of Stephanie, even though the tongue-tied mommy vlogger seems to have nothing she could want. And then Emily disappears, and suddenly it's up to Stephanie to step in and save her pal.
At this point, just strap in, because A Simple Favor's plot isn't just twisty: It's so labyrinthine that you expect a minotaur to pop up. With more red herrings and American Gothic hijinks than should be seemly in polite company, the murder-mystery influences are obvious in this homage/spoof of Gillian Flynn-style femmes fatale. Yet Feig and American Horror Story writer Jessica Sharzer (adapting Darcey Bell’s equally baroque novel) seem to always have Agatha Christie in the corner of their eye. The Queen of Crime’s greatest addition to the genre was taking the most unlikely of sleuths – an adorable old spinster, a bumptious Belgian detective – and put them into the darkest of perils. Kendrick is an equally improbable detective, but her fidgety energy has rarely been put to better ends. She has the wit and whimsy of a younger Steve Martin, making this her Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid – a campy detective flick that truly loves the genre.
For an interview with the director, read "Can You Help? Paul Feig Needs A Simple Favor," Sept. 13.