Movie Review – A Simple Favor
Oscar-nominee Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air and Into the Woods) stars as Stephanie Smothers, a 30-something single mom living in the suburbs of Connecticut, just outside of New York City. She has her own vlog where she posts videos featuring her talking directly to the camera about her life as a single mom, which mainly consists of her teaching recipes or doing various forms of cooking. The videos appear to be inspirational as well as informative, buttressed by her bubbly and upbeat personality. Given that the movie starts with one of her vlogs, I was reminded of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, which started the same way. In fact, there appears to be not much difference between Burnham’s 13-year-old, female protagonist and Stephanie, aside from age.
Directed by Paul Feig, the film was adapted from a novel by Darcey Bell. Instead of being singularly a character study, this movie is more plot-driven. It’s a mystery that could draw comparisons to recent film noirs like Gone Girl (2014), The Girl on the Train (2016) or Gemini (2018). The movie itself references Diabolique (1996). However, Feig isn’t a filmmaker known for his mysteries or noirs. He’s known for his comedies and at times, this felt like a sitcom or a TV show in the vein of Desperate Housewives in which Kendrick’s character could have fit perfectly. Yet, a show I settled on is Murder, She Wrote (1984), but, for this, it’s more like “Murder, She Vlogged!”
Like Murder, She Wrote or Law & Order, the plot is very much like similar procedural shows where we go from person-to-person picking up clues. Some of which is enlightening. Some isn’t. It’s as the movie says, which is following breadcrumbs. It’s definitely curious and there are some twists here to keep the protagonist and the audience guessing or on edge, but it all builds to a scheme that doesn’t make much sense.
Blake Lively (The Shallows and The Age of Adaline) co-stars as Emily Nelson, a PR director at the firm of a high-end and high-powered, fashion designer. She’s a fashionista in her own right. She’s not the boss, but she acts like Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. She’s also a bit of a pill. She doesn’t apologize. She instead speaks her mind, even if it means cursing in front of her five-year-old son. She’s brutally honest. She also likes to drink martinis at all hours of the day, which helps to loosen her tongue. She’s very tough and fierce otherwise, and Lively clearly is having fun in the role.
It’s fun to see Kendrick awkwardly stumble through a murder mystery. She doesn’t stumble all that much. She’s pretty smart and amiable. There’s also an adorable charm with which she uses to breeze through this story. The most fun though is Lively tearing through this story like a hurricane, chewing scenery in particular moments. Those moments tilt over into ridiculousness to some degree that’s comparable to Gone Girl, but it leans more toward soap opera. There’s only one weak link in the equation.
Henry Golding also co-stars as Sean Townsend, a professor who used to be a writer. He’s Emily’s husband. He has a son with her. He’s from London. When he goes to England to visit his injured mother, his wife disappears, but circumstantial evidence suggests that he might have had something to do with her disappearance. Later, in the film, Sean becomes suspicious for other reasons or perhaps he’s just a pawn, but I’m not sure Golding totally pulls it off.
Golding isn’t asked to give as much as director David Fincher asked of Ben Affleck in Gone Girl. If much isn’t demanded, much can’t be expected, but, in an erotic thriller, which this movie becomes after veering from the comedy and mystery where it began, you need more than what Golding is giving here. Golding is obviously a very good-looking guy and extremely sexy but presented here in a way that feels safe. There’s no sharp edge to him, which might be required. Even the moments of grief weren’t that believable to me. I don’t get that much range from him.
His role isn’t like Affleck’s role in Gone Girl, so Golding doesn’t need to give that great of a performance. Yet, the movie really is all about the women and they deliver. The backstory of Emily is the driving force here, but the backstory of Stephanie actually is the most provocative, if not the most interesting. Stephanie’s backstory is bizarre and tragic, but it’s brushed over as a joke. There are questions about Stephanie’s husband and brother that were more compelling than Emily’s immediate family, so when we learn about Emily’s family, I didn’t really care.
What we learn is that Stephanie had sex with her brother Chris, played by Dustin Milligan (Schitt’s Creek and 90210). She somehow manages to get married to a completely different guy named Davis, played by Eric Johnson (Rookie Blue and Smallville), and have a baby, but her husband questions the paternity of her son. Somehow, the husband thinks his wife has committed incest, but that’s a huge leap for him to make based on the one scene he’s in where he sees Stephanie and Chris simply standing next to each other and laughing. The movie should have given us more to develop his suspicions. How and the extent of Stephanie’s physical relationship with her brother should have been developed more. I understand that this movie isn’t about that. It’s meant to illuminate a small something about Stephanie, but there’s a scene that has Stephanie in New York visiting an artist that went nowhere, except to maybe suggest that Emily is bisexual but who cares when an incestuous relationship is up in the air here.
Rated R for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity, drug use and violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 56 mins.