Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Paul Feig
Stars: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Bashir Salahuddin, Joshua Satine, Ian Ho, Jean Smart, Linda Cardellini, Andrew Randells, Danielle Bourgon, Dustin Milligan, Rupert Friend.
This twisted, darkly comic female centric noir like thriller marks a change of pace for director Paul Feig, who is best known for his female centric comedies like the raucous Bridesmaids and the recent reboot of the 80’s cult classic Ghostbusters.
Overachieving widow and single mother Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is also a blogger who shares recipes and helpful household hints on line, a sort of perkier Martha Stewart type if you like. She meets the sophisticated, seductive, wealthy and seemingly confident, but mysterious Emily Nelson (Blake Lively, from tv series Gossip Girl, the shark thriller The Shallows, etc) at her son’s kindergarten. Stephanie’s son Miles (Joshua Satine) becomes friends with Emily’s son Nicky (Ian Ho), and two mothers also become close friends. Emily is a high-powered publicist for a fashion house. She is married to womanising lecturer and failed novelist Sean (Henry Golding, from this year’s break out hit comedy Crazy Rich Asians), but their marriage seems strained.
Then one day Emily asks Stephanie to perform the titular small favour for her – pick up her son after school – and soon after things become more complicated. Emily disappears without a trace. Stephanie takes it upon herself to try and orchestrate a search by putting up posters all over town. But she also begins to play amateur sleuth and learn more about Emily’s troubled past. And she grows closer to Sean.
When Emily’s body is found in a nearby lake, Sean is arrested. Emily’s son keeps mentioning that he has seen his mother hanging around. Stephaine becomes convinced that Emily is not really dead, and her investigation takes her into some dark and unexpected places.
And then there are several more twists before the film reaches its denouement.
A Simple Favour has been adapted from Darcey Bell’s 2017 pulpy novel, and its sinuous plotting and surprise twists will remind many of David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl. The script, written by Jessica Sharzer (tv series The L Word, the recent Nerve, etc), is sharp, complex in its clever structure, but a little convoluted, with one too many red herrings and unbelievable twists that stretch credulity.
A Simple Favour is a kinky tale of deception, murder, incest, secrets and lies, and the dark heart beneath the seemingly quiet façade of suburbia. Feig normally has a brash directorial style, but here he seems a bit more restrained and lacks that edgy and quirky quality he brought to his comedies. There is some great slick production design from Jefferson Sage (The Heat, Bridesmaids, etc) that recreates Emily’s bright and sprawling designer home. And costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus (Hidden Figures, etc) gets a special mention for the array of power suits she has created for Lively’s character.
However, he draws strong performances from his two leads that enliven the campy material. Kendrick is a likeable actress and she brings her usual perky, bubbly and inherently good-natured quality to her role here, while her character undergoes a great change as events begin to spiral out of control. Kendrick gets to show a more cynical and ruthless side of her screen persona. She seems to have grown comfortable with the demands of the comic thriller genre with films like The Accountant and Mr Right to her credit, and she subverts the usual tropes of the genre.
Lively has a seductive quality, but she also has an acerbic sense of humour, an icy persona and a dark edge. She is a great femme fatale drawn from the films of Hitchcock and De Palma and seems to be enjoying herself here. Golding brings charm and a hint of naivety to his role as the clueless husband, but he does develop a good chemistry with Kendrick in particular, and a more prickly dynamic with Lively. Bashir Salahuddin (tv series Glow, etc) also registers strongly as Summervile, a wise-cracking but suspicious detective.
A Simple Flavour is a classy but somewhat flawed B-grade thriller, well below the standards established by other such similar mysteries as The Lady Vanishes, Gone Girl or even the recent The Girl On The Train. But it is also something of a guilty pleasure for fans of the genre if you can overlook some of the obvious plot holes and silly contrivances.