TL;DR – Crazy, absurd, ridiculous, tense, and an amazing ball of fun
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
The tone is something that can make or break a film, and you would think it would be an easy thing to get right, but alas it can be a tightrope to walk at times. This is especially important when you are blending genres and still trying to make it feel like a constant whole. Today we look at a film A Simple Favor that walks that tightrope from absurdity to high strung tension and makes it look effortless. Now before we get into the review proper, I do want to say that I have not read the book so I will leave it to others more knowledgeable than me to let you know if it is a good adaption or not, and I’ll just focus on the film.
So to set the scene, we open on Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) a stay at home single mother and part-time lifestyle blogger. But as she gets ready to make her zucchini brownies she lets us know that her best friend Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) is still missing, indeed she has been missing for five days. Emily asked for a simple favour from Stephanie to pick up her child up from school but she never came home from work. It is here that we jump back to the first time Stephanie and Emily met and well you have to wonder if they were truly best friends. Stephanie is always helping at the school and is someone who has her own helium container for those balloon emergencies, while Emily is a PR rep for a perfume agency in the city, a lover of martinis at any time in the day, and never says sorry. We then meet Stephanie’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) and as time goes on we get a better understanding of the interesting bond that develops between the two mothers, but at every moment we know that tragedy is coming.
The first thing we see with A Simple Favor is the effort that has gone into crafting the costumes of each character and how they use it to tell a story. With Emily, everything she wears is both impeccably tailored but also of these sharp clean lines, which is that character personified. With Stephanie, everything she wears is what some people would call homely, but it is practical for someone running after a young child, but it is also there as a shield, almost a disguise so she can hide away from the world at times. This extends to the other characters in the film, and I really love when films add this level of detail to their visual storytelling. There is also an immense confidence this film exuded, we start with really old-school opening titles as a song is sung in French. It is such a clear stylistic choice that lets you know that this film is here to bring it, and we also see that in the very end of the film which I was so impressed with the sheer gall, but I won’t get into details because that really would be getting spoilery.
The next thing we have to talk about is how A Simple Favor manages tone because it is a masterpiece in finding that right balance. However, to discuss the tone of the film we do have to engage with the story and because of that, there will be [SPOILERS] from this point onwards. For a film, it can be difficult enough to get the tone right when you are just swimming in one genre, but A Simple Favor is not content just to stay within one genre. We have fish out of water story, a murder mystery, a psychological thriller, a who-done-it, and a family drama. We go from the highs of Stephanie being completely out of her world with Emily which had the cinema in stitches, to the heartfelt comforting of a child who has just lost their mother, to the terror of could you be living with a murderer, and then back again. The whole film ricochets from one extreme to the next, which should make for a disjointed mess, but they make it work for two reasons, the cast and how the story develops the characters.
This is one example that shows just how important casting for films is because I doubt you would have been able to pull off the tone shifts with a cast that was not as committed as this one is. Anna Kendrick is at home in comedic movies, and at the start where she is sort of a fish-out-of-water, it felt like it was a great fit. However, as the film progresses and we start delving into some of the more psychological thriller aspects she is just as comfortable here as well. Anna plays a devoted mother, a passionate lover, and a maybe a murderer. I have seen Blake Lively as a supporting player in films before but here she shows that she can kill it in the lead. Even before we see her face in her introduction she had already owned the whole scene. Emily is a very complicated character, and it would have been easy to slip into caricature, but Blake plays her with nuance and power. After Crazy Rich Asians (see review) Henry Golding is going from strength to strength here as Emily’s husband. But also a big shout out to Ian Ho and Joshua Satine who play Stephanie and Emily’s young children. For such young actors, they have to go to some difficult places and emotions and they do a fantastic job.
That next highlight is the way the story develops, that build the characters but yet still keeps its cards close to its chest. I am not usually a fan of in medias res but here they use it really well as it is shown from the perspective of Stephanie making a blog. This gives us a little context to the world happening around them, and it allows Stephanie to give a talk to the camera almost breaking the 4th wall, but it also marks the progress of her as a character as she finds more confidence. All of this means that when Emily does go missing there is actually a lot of confusion as to what happened to her, and there were moments throughout the film where I suspected everyone of being the perpetrator and to do that you need a really good story structure. I was completely engaged with every twist and turn, and the whole cinema laughed, gasped, and at times left in a shocked silence.
In the end, do we recommend A Simple Favor? Yes, yes we do. Now one small caveat that there is a lot of coarse language, and a couple of sex scenes, which maybe be understandable be deal breakers for some people. However, I think that Paul Feig, the production team, and cast have created something really fascinating. It bounces through genres and tones, but always keeps it heart in mind. It is doing something really different and it works, and it is so great to see.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of A Simple Favor
Directed by – Paul Feig
Screenplay by – Jessica Sharzer
Based on – A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell
Music by – Theodore Shapiro
Cinematography by – John Schwartzman
Edited by – Brent White
Starring – Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, Bashir Salahuddin, Jean Smart, Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, Aparna Nancherla & Dustin Milligan
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: 14A; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R