REVIEW: "A Simple Favor" gives complicated feelings
Disclaimer: “A Simple Favor” is an R rated film. It features sexual content, language throughout, and some graphic nude images in the form of a painting, as well as drug use and violence. If you do not wish to see these things portrayed on film then I would recommend not seeing this film.
“A Simple Favor” is anything but a simple movie.
Instead, it's a provocative mystery thriller that takes itself seriously while also laughing at itself. Or is it laughing at us?
I have a hard time pinpointing exactly what type of movie “A Simple Favor” aims to be. Is it a candy-coated “Gone Girl,” or is it a gussied-up Lifetime thriller? Am I supposed to be laughing at this scene? I honestly don’t know, but I think so.
This may seem like I’m describing a movie with an identity crisis, but I don’t think it’s that simple.
A Complicated Affair
The premise of “A Simple Favor” is simple enough. Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), an over-achieving single mother who runs a vlog series for moms, meets and becomes friends with the elusive and mysterious Emily (Blake Lively). Emily's high profile job in fashion keeps her away from home and her son, who goes to the same school as Stephanie's child, almost daily.
The two’s unusual friendship blooms. Emily relies on Stephanie regularly for taking care of her child when neither she nor her husband Sean (Henry Golding), a formerly successful writer and current college English professor, are able to do so. Stephanie relies on Emily as a friend and confidence booster, something she has sorely lacked for some time.
One day, Emily asks Stephanie for the titular simple favor of picking up her son from school. Then, the glamorous Emily mysteriously vanishes. Due to the puzzling circumstances of her vanishing, Stephanie and Sean attempt to figure out exactly what happened to her.
Did I say the premise was simple? I lied, which I feel is appropriate given the nature of the film.
The Mystery of Truth
Truth is the foundational element of any mystery, for if the truth were known, then there would be no mystery. The question then becomes, what is the truth? Finding truth is, in essence, the core of any mystery.
“A Simple Favor” is a movie about finding out the truth about Emily. Or it would be if it was trying to be a mystery movie, but it isn’t. Mystery is in it, but frankly, what makes a mystery worth watching is almost entirely absent.
Each revelation should spark new mysteries that need to be answered, like a puzzle box that looks unfinished until the end, when everything comes together. “A Simple Favor” does not do this. Instead, each new revelation acts more like a puzzle piece, revealing more of the greater picture and fitting perfectly into place.
Nothing comes across as particularly shocking. In the end, it just looks like the picture on the box.
Looking Too Closely
So what keeps the story engaging, if not the mystery of “What happened to Emily?” as the marketing so strongly suggests?
Is it the provocative-thriller angle? Not exactly. For that to have been the case, it would need to be the one thing a thriller needs to be: thrilling. And it isn’t. It has all of the elements of a thriller but almost none of the suspense.
It’s a mystery that’s not inventive and a thriller that lacks tension, but it did not set out to be either one of those things. Or it set out to be both of those things and failed. Either way, to me, the movie succeeds. It does not succeed as a mystery or as a thriller but as some sort of chic, off-beat pairing of the two of them.
It’s like a murder-mystery party where the guests dressed up and arrived at a nice house, but everyone just wanted to have a good time and not get too serious with it. The movie feels aware of the fact that it’s just playing a game, and it takes delight in that.
Creating a Persona
Everyone working on this movie must have been having a blast, and that comes through in a good way. Anna Kendrick has a charming presence, as usual, and part of the fun is seeing Stephanie’s evolution through her relationship with Emily.
Director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “Spy”) is tapping into a different style than his previous films. It has a slick sense to it. His usual tendency to let the actors riff or improvise, frequently for extended periods, is toned back significantly.
I believe Feig has a good sense for comedy, but I usually don’t find his films all that funny. “A Simple Favor” may actually be his funniest film, and it’s because I almost never felt he was trying too hard to get a laugh. Most of the humor comes from the characters rather than the need to be funny.
Now push all that aside, because the show-stealer is absolutely Blake Lively as Emily. She is full of contradictions and mysteries yet always in charge of any given situation. She’s elegant yet crude. She always does and says whatever she wants, and she never apologizes. Why would she? She’s confident, composed and never misses a beat. Lively plays with her public persona and weaponizes it. Her allure is the reason this movie works.
A Simple Error
Unfortunately, “A Simple Favor” does not stick the landing when it comes to the ending. The last 20 minutes or so feel like the filmmakers didn’t actually have a thought-out idea for how to conclude this story.
While the movie is having fun with its premise throughout, it was still pretty committed to its twists and turns, so it’s wholly unsatisfying to have it wrap up in such a laissez-faire, jokey manner. The fun stuff was fun because the movie was trying to be fun, but it still took itself just seriously enough to keep the narrative engaging.
By the end, I think they simply didn’t bother to come up with a more thought-out idea, which makes me question whether the movie was thought-out, or if it was just a giant farce. If Lively wasn’t so good, I wonder if the ending would be upsetting or if it would just let down her performance.
One more ridiculous twist could’ve solidified the self-aware nature of the film without simply falling on a lazy gag.
A Final Conclusion
“A Simple Favor” is a unique film that uses its specific genre as a sort of playground to explore an interesting narrative with some off-beat comedic flare. The effort put into the performances and style give a certain credibility to the antithetical approach it takes to its material. The only heavy letdown is a lackluster final act that fails to justify its complicated twists and turns in any meaningful way.
“A Simple Favor” is strangely both a surprise and a disappointment. While it's not everything I wanted it to be from the set-up, the fun vibe mostly overcomes its narrative shortcomings.
Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence.
Runtime: 1hr 57min