As I walked into A Simple Favor, there was one question looming in my mind. And no, it wasn’t, “what happened to Emily?”
The question was could Paul Fieg direct a thriller?
Fieg, known for some of the great comedies this decade with Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters has never done a movie quite like this before. Film history has been mixed on comedic directors going towards the dramatic side. Sometimes it’s been great, like when Adam McKay went from doing Anchorman and Step Brothers to the Oscar winning The Big Short. Sometimes, it can be awful, like David Dobkin, who went from Wedding Crashers to the simply awful The Judge. It was an interesting move for Feig, and one that had me very intrigued.
The result? About smack-dab in the middle of McKay and Dobkin. A Simple Favor starts off really strong and interesting only spiral out of control in the final third.
A Simple Favor follows Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), an overly enthusiastic single mom who volunteers for just about everything at her son Miles’ (Joshua Satine) school while also running a weekly vlog for fellow mothers. One day, when picking up Miles from school, she meets Emily (Blake Lively), the stunning, fashion-forward, bold, mysterious mother of Miles’ friend Nicky (Ian Ho). Emily invites Stephanie over so Nicky and Miles can have a playdate, while the adults have martini’s in the middle of the day. This spawns a friendship, one Stephanie was desperately missing from her life.
One afternoon, Emily asks Stephanie if she can pick up Nicky from school, a simple task Stephanie is happy to do. However, Emily goes missing without a trace. Nobody knows where she is, not Stephanie, Nicky, nor her husband Sean (Henry Golding). It is then a mystery of what happened to Emily and the case proves that Emily is not who everyone thought she was.
Based on a book of the same name, Fieg does a great job of building the mystery and building the suspense. Similar to old David Lynch, a la Blue Velvet, Fieg shows us this glossy, upper-middle class lifestyle and shows that this glamorous life isn’t all what it seems. He builds up this mystery and doesn’t give anything away, and for the first two acts, really plays tricks on us in terms of perception and the where the movie is going. Usually I’m pretty good about picking up on the route a movie like this is going, but this time, I was genuinely surprised with every twist and turn, as they were all unexpected. Feig uses great technique in building the tension and thrills, utilizing some stellar cinematography and slick editing. Also, being the master of comedy that Feig is, this movie also has plenty of laughs, though some of them are ill-timed and ruin the tension of the scene.
The big reveal in A Simple Favor happens relatively early in the film, which was rather surprising and reminded me of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Feig continues to build the story and suspense, but what was once great about the film quickly vanishes into a chaotic mash of twists, turns, double-crosses, and reveals, all culminating in a hot mess of a finale the veers on the side of ridiculous. Feig almost had something special here, but he just couldn’t keep the movie on the rails long enough.
Kendrick is delightful as Stephanie. I generally like Kendrick in anything she does, but it was nice to see her come out of her shell more in this one and try a genre that she hasn’t done before. As Stephanie’s life begins to unravel, Kendrick brings us along on her psychological journey. When she’s scared, we’re scared, and when we’re lost, she’s lost too. Kendrick rocks and I hope she does more movies like this in the future. Lively is devilishly excellent as Emily, in what could arguably be her best performance ever. And Henry Golding is officially the breakout star of 2018, following the massive success of Crazy Rich Asians, he gives a vastly different, yet just as impressive performance here in what is sure to be a future Hollywood star.
A Simple Favor is almost a great movie, if not for an incoherent final third. Feig gives a noble effort here, and I would love to see him create an original thriller and not one taken from a book. The performances are solid from all the cast and the first two acts of the film are truly engrossing. This is a frustrating movie because the greatness was there, just not fulfilled.