Back in the 90’s, Jeremy Irons stopped trying to be a leading man and became a much more interesting actor by essaying villainy. Hugh Grant may have just reached a career zenith this year by playing two bad guys – one in “Paddington 2”, the other in BBC One’s “A Very English Scandal.” Now, Blake Lively gives her best screen performance to date in “A Simple Favor” by shaking off her California girl heroine cloak. She makes for one delicious scoundrel and elevates the uneven film every time she’s on screen.
Lively is just that, as a matter of fact, full of brio in her performance as Emily Nelson, the vixen at the center of “A Simple Favor.” Emily’s a Hitchcockian blonde in this potboiler that owes a lot to the Master of Suspense, not to mention Gillian Flynn and Agatha Christie. She’s brash, profane, a real man-eater; the kind of character that only exists in the movies. Emily throws back martinis, invites men to tryst in public restrooms, and takes the piss out of anyone who gets in her way. It’s a tall order to play such a femme fatale, but Lively eschews all of her ‘girl next door’ aesthetic to completely fill the part. Even her fashionista wardrobe, one of the most memorable collections ever worn by an actress onscreen, can’t overpower Lively’s brazen turn. Hers is one of the year’s best performances, and if there’s a God, should garner her a Best Supporting Actress nomination come Oscar time.
In the story, Emily rules over her domain. She’s a high-powered PR whiz for a fashion house, as well as one-half of a gorgeous power couple. Henry Golding, fresh off of his success in “Crazy Rich Asians,”plays Sean Townsend, her famed author of a husband. They live in a home straight out of Architectural Digest and still ignite sexual electricity whenever they’re in a room together. Emily appears to have it all, but her husband’s written out, their lavish lifestyle is causing debt, and she’s not particularly good at mothering. When Emily shows up at school in the pouring rain to pick up her son Nicky (Ian Ho), she’s in four-inch heels and a customized suit that says, “Don’t touch.” Her style and blunt demeanor both attract and repel super mom Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick). Her son Miles (Joshua Satine) is Nicky’s best friend and it forces her to deal with Emily.
Stephanie lives up to her last name as she’s a textbook case of the overbearing, ingratiating, do-it-all single mom. (Imagine Martha Stewart and Mr. Rogers had a love child.) The other mothers despise her perky manner, not to mention her weekly “mommy vlog” where she tells viewers exactly how to parent. Emily finds her a curiosity and invites her to her lush pad for drinks in the middle of the afternoon.
They end up hitting it off and soon the two are sharing all sorts of gossip and secrets. Emily brags of a recent threesome and she cajoles Stephanie into confessing that she had sex with her stepbrother after her father’s funeral. Theirs is a strange friendship, one where Emily affectionately calls Stephanie, “Brother F**ker.”
Soon, Stephanie is thick as thieves with Emily, becoming a fixture in her life and home. But then, Emily disappears, and it turns everyone’s world upside down. Updates of her disappearance become a regular feature of Stephanie’s vlog, and she spends more time playing “Nancy Drew” as she tries to discover what happened to her new BFF. Suffice it to say, what Steph discovers about Emily is quite unsavory, but to tell more would be to give away too many of the outrageous twists and turns awaiting the second half of the story.
Outrageous is indeed the word to describe “A Simple Favor” as the longer it goes on, the more over-the-top it sails, to the point of becoming not only a dark comedy but almost, a satire of sexy thrillers from the 80’s and 90’s. (You can see the heavy influences of films like “Body Heat” and “Basic Instinct” throughout.) Sure, the film starts out playing Jean Paul Keller’s bombastic French take on “Music toWatch Girls By” over the frenetic credits, and Kendrick’s performance is pitched a number of notches above her neurotic comedy on display in the “Pitch Perfect” trilogy, but there’s a seriousness to the film that supersedes it.
But as the mystery deepens, much of the comedy becomes too strong. Director Paul Feig comes from that world, and Jessica Sharzer’s script, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, certainly pokes acidic fun at the suburbs, the fashion world, and even rubes in ‘burgs who always figure in the hidden pasts of guilty parties, but they let this pulp overcook.
There are a ton of farcical laughs, some that really have no place in a movie with disturbing themes of drug addiction, patricide, and arson. At one point, a character is hit by a speeding car and it’s shot virtually in the same way that Cady imagined Regina’s death in “Mean Girls.” That was a fantasy sequence, but here, it’s played for real. The tonal shifts are head scratchers, as is the ever-increasing series of flamboyant twists and turns in the plotting. It’s fun, but some discretion would’ve served it all better.
The story of someone like Emily should disturb. The film starts to explore her sociopathic psyche and could’ve showcased how her deceit truly ruins all that she touches. Lively stays committed to that portrayal, even when the film starts to undermine her in the last 30 minutes. If only Feig had dialed it all down, keeping Kendrick’s mannerisms in check and pulling back on too many kitschy selections on the soundtrack. Then his film might’ve been a classic in the genre. Instead, it’s a bauble of a film, just dark enough to be edgy, just frivolous enough to be weightless. But at least he’s got that marvelous performance from Lively anchoring it all. Her character is outrageous enough, it’s too bad the film felt the need to match her.
Catch the trailer of A Simple Favor below: