FILM REVIEW – A SIMPLE FAVOR. With Blake Lively, Anna Kendrick, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini. Written by Jessica Sharzer. Directed by Paul Feig. Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use, and violence. 117 mins.
About halfway through A SIMPLE FAVOR, I started imagining how much I’d rather be watching a Lifetime TV movie of this same story, maybe something starring Tori Spelling and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen. At least such an undertaking wouldn’t be so smug about the tawdry pleasures of this twisty tale, which was adapted by Jessica Sharzer from Darcey Bell’s novel and directed by Paul Feig – of “Bridesmaids” fame, as well as the bafflingly controversial “Ghostbusters” reboot that sent thousands of incels into paroxysms of rage.
Set in a chichi Connecticut suburb and scored to jaunty French music, the film stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers, a hyper-attentive helicopter mom who keeps a chirpy video blog chronicling her efforts to become a miniaturized Martha Stewart. A single mother whose husband and brother were both killed in the same car accident, Stephanie’s overbearing affect leaves her with few friends around the schoolyard. A least until Emily comes along.
Played with a blowsy, throwback femme fatale magnetism by Blake Lively, she’s a negligent mother and charming, mid-afternoon drunk, bringing home the bacon at a powerful fashion P.R. gig while her onetime hotshot novelist husband (“Crazy Rich Asians” star Henry Golding) finds excuses not to write. Emily introduces Stephanie to the pleasures of cocktail hour and does her best to make the girl stop apologizing all the damn time. She also takes advantage of her kindness by enlisting the chipper kid as an unpaid nanny.
It’s all good and well until Emily up and disappears, leaving the door wide open for Stephanie to “single white female who rocks the cradle” into her missing friend’s postcard house and perfect marriage, that is until we start seeing signs that our “gone girl” might still be around,
“A Simple Favor” is obviously, screamingly derivative, yet the story’s beach-read hooks might have found some traction if the filmmakers had any idea how to manage the tone. Not funny enough to pass as satire yet too snarky to provide any genuine chills, the movie exists in a half-kidding limbo, with none of the performers on the same page. Kendrick gives a brittle, exaggerated boost to her tiresome Kewpie doll persona while Lively’s game performance will make you wish they still made 1940s noirs. She’s miles better than the rest of the movie, which slows to a crawl during the long stretches she’s offscreen.
In his previous pictures, Feig’s primary skillset seems to have been staying out of the way while Melissa McCarthy improvises. Without her around this time he seems stumped by the rudimentary requirements of setting a scene. The garishly overlit cinematography excels at finding unflattering angles of these beautiful actresses, their inexplicably extravagant high-fashion getups more distracting than anything else.
(It’s almost impossible to pay attention to the plot while Lively is wearing some sort of sleeveless tuxedo and detachable white cuffs. I kept wondering why she went to work dressed as a Chippendale. There’s also an entire expository monologue that goes missing behind a large flowery thing Kendrick wears around her neck.)
The saucy Serge Gainsbourg songs on the soundtrack are supposedly meant to summon a spirit of insouciance, as the plot twists of “A Simple Favor” grow increasingly more absurd. The problem is there’s nothing for us to enjoy in its self-mockery, the flat staging and abject absence of visual style signal more contempt than amusement. Nobody’s taking this silly story very seriously, but Feig is too prudish and (let’s face it) incompetent to provide any compensating sensual pleasures, the way Brian De Palma or David Fincher have in the past with similarly chintzy material. At least Tori and Tiffani-Amber would have committed.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.