Everything we know going into A Simple Favor suggests one of those Hitchcockian mysteries that blurs the lines between homage and emulation. Its premise and tone are right out of the Master of Suspense’s beginners’ playbook: Through a series of unfortunate choices or just plain bad luck, an average Joe or Jane, whom the audience projects themselves onto, gets sucked into a dangerous mystery that throws them completely out of their element and threatens their lives, leaving them with only their wits and survival instincts to get out of this madness unscathed.
In the case of A Simple Favor, what the audience should know is that, even though the screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, adapted from Darcey Bell’s novel, borrows some narrative cues from gloomier fare like Strangers on a Train and Vertigo, it’s a lighthearted mystery with a heaping helping of humor, more in tune with happy-go-lucky classics like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief. Even though it’s not Hitch, Stanley Donen’s Charade is an obvious tonal influence.
Director Paul Feig immediately eases us into this mood of light intrigue through a Saul Bass-inspired title sequence full of sliding split screens and uniformly pleasant colors, aided by peppy ’60s-ish French pop to smoothe out the intensity of the film’s thriller elements. Feig is primarily known as a comedy director who has a knack for improvisational R-rated banter between neurotic, but confident, female characters, and in A Simple Favor those characters participate in in a respectably average missing person thriller/mystery. Bridesmaids does Gone Girl is a fairly intriguing selling point; perhaps the marketing should have focused on that.
Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a lively yet fairly conservative suburban single mom who copes with her crippling loneliness by hosting a mommy vlog, befriends Emily (Blake Lively)—brutally honest, charismatic and sultry, she’d make the spirits of Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall proud—through a play date for her son (Joshua Satine). Emily’s brashness enamors Stephanie, cracking open her sexual and social repression. Emily’s Stephanie’s Tyler Durden—without the tired split personality twist, though some of the film’s actual twists are almost as tired—living the carefree life she always wanted, replete with a swanky modern mansion and a hot husband (Henry Golding) to boot.
This too-good-to-be-true BFF relationship of course goes south when Emily suddenly disappears, propelling Stephanie to get to the bottom of the mystery, like a soccer mom version of Nancy Drew, her plucky sleuthing adventures eventually revealing Emily’s dark, hidden past and a sinister underpinning to what on the surface appears to be a run-of-the-mill missing person case. Even though Feig makes sure to keep the surprises coming—most of which can be predicted by an audience with even a passing knowledge of this kind of film, even before they’re foreshadowed—Stephanie’s emotional arc is more intriguing. She gradually finds herself replacing Stephanie while grappling with the guilt of doing so to her best friend.
Inevitably, A Simple Favor’s third act dulls the previous acts’ firm pacing with overlong exposition about how the bevy of conspiracies, back-stabbings, double-back-stabbings and various criminal shenanigans were pulled off, dragging us through flashbacks that artificially stretch the tension where the tension is already non-existent. Still, Feig finds a way to keep it all fun and light, injecting well-earned humor even during the uneasiest moments. He can actually get away with capping a nerve-racking Mexican standoff with a slapstick dick punch. As messy and predictable as its plot can get, A Simple Favor is an engaging throwback to the aforementioned tongue-in-cheek mysteries, drawing much of its energy from the chemistry between Kendrick and Lively. It need not be anything more than that.
Director: Paul Feig
Writer: Jessica Sharzer
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Rupert Friend, Jean Smart, Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, Aparna Nancherla
Release Date: September 14, 2018