There aren’t many movies that come out in September that are interesting or receive high praise from critics. But there are those surprises that come up. Based on the Darcey Bell novel of the same name, A Simple Favor has as many curves as a country back road. Part Gone Girl, park Hitchcock, this movie is a sleek, enjoyable time.
Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a small-town single mother and vlogger. She befriends Emily (Blake Lively), a rich but mysterious woman. The two become fast and best friends. When she asks Stephanie for a favor and pick up her son from school, Emily disappears. Using her blog, Stephanie looks for her best friend , but things begin to unravel as both women’s pasts and dark secrets are exposed.
The movie mainly benefits from pitch-perfect casting of the lead roles with Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. While Kendrick has been often cast as a bubbly leading girl, there is always something more to her character; something spikier and much more interesting. Kendrick crafts a humorous portrayal of a type-A woman who overzealous nature masks her awareness of how un-liked she is to the other parents at school. As the movie progresses, Kendrick embraces the qualities that helped her break out in Up in the Air (2009): adding a deeper layer and giving Stephanie an unhinged layer that makes the audience all into question her reliability as the film’s narrator.
On the other side, Lively goes full Hitchcock blonde with a wicked smile. Her character is a flawless foil to the frenzied nature of Kendrick’s Stephanie. Enigmatic and icy, Emily is the type of woman you want to avoid but can’t help but become intrigued and seduced by. Blake finds a sweet spot with this character that has often eluded her in past roles. This helps Lively deliver on all fronts, a breathless knockout in intimidating, tailored clothes she sports like armor.
In a mystery like this, there is always a third party: that would be Henry Golding, playing Emily’s husband, Sean. Because I hadn’t seen Crazy Rich Asians yet, I didn’t realize how much of a leading man Golding would be. I was proven why he could be a future winner. He is effortlessly delightful and charming, a potent weapon that he wields with skill and ease. He trades on toothy grins and comfortable handsomeness, he keeps audience (and Stephanie) guessing. It was a pleasure to see him use this appeal for something more deceptive.
Director Paul Feig has made his name with outrageous comedies like Bridesmaids. Here he ditches the laugh-out-loud moments and physical comedic gags for a more sinister domestic thriller, filled with glistening gin martinis and a sexy French score. Elements like this and style are weaponized, using it to keep audiences off balance as the film unfolds. Paul Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer make this film different from other grim female-led thrillers by casting a winking eye over the film’s more eccentric scenarios, particularly the competitive antics with elementary school parents (you know you hate those parents who volunteer for everything). Sharzer laces the script with sharp one-liners and black comedy that doesn’t debase the suspense.
The film circles around timely themes such as the pressures of motherhood, single parenthood, marriage, and the pressure and cost to be seen as the perfect wife, employee, mother; and the breaking point of keeping up with those expectations. However, an abundance of red herrings lessen the impact of the core mystery when the truth is finally revealed. Obsession and voyeurism are beloved cinematic themes in film, but they receive a glide over the surface, instead of digging to the seductive, black heart of the matter. While A Simple Favor might not stick the perfect landing, it still makes for a taut, absorbing, enjoyable ride to close the summer movie season.
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