When we say “the new Paul Feig movie,” something like “A Simple Favor,” now on home video, is not what we’d expect from the co-creator of “Freaks and Geeks” and the director of many subsequent comedies with heart. But, you know, it’s pretty cool that someone can have enough success to break out of the category we’ve put him in – even if we like his work in that category.
Directed by Feig and written by Jessica Sharzer (working from Darcey Bell’s novel), “A Simple Favor” is like a mystery-comedy stage play. The film has multiple settings and is not claustrophobic, but the large modern home of Emily (Blake Lively) and Sean (Henry Golding) is the main location. Emily feels trapped in this “money pit,” though, because what they owe on their mortgage is much more than its current value. She tells this to Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) when they meet, brought together by their young boys’ play date.
But it’s Emily’s brashness that fascinates the mousy Stephanie. Emily drinks in the middle of the day, swears like a sailor on leave, gets away with telling off her boss at her fashion-design job, rips Sean (a writer who doesn’t write) behind his back, and hates having her picture taken. Before Emily goes missing, we’re already piecing together “clues” based on her wild personality.
Feig mixes Kendrick’s natural quirkiness with the way Stephanie is drawn into Emily’s shady world after the funeral. Stephanie hosts a cooking vlog, which – in one of “A Simple Favor’s” many touches of ironic humor – is most likely a huge hit because of Stephanie’s updates on the bizarre case of her missing friend. It’s possible she doesn’t grasp this is the reason for the vlog’s success.
The tone of “A Simple Favor” is odd but engaging. Comedy often rises to the surface, and when it doesn’t, we sense it percolating. Yet it doesn’t cut into the clue-gathering or the character development and revelations. For example, while Stephanie seems achingly innocent in Emily’s world, she is clearly a much better mom, knowing exactly how to resolve a spat between the best friends (her son and Emily’s) at Emily’s wake. And when Stephanie talks to one of Emily’s old acquaintances – “Freaks and Geeks” veteran Linda Cardellini going against type as a bitter artist – the scene gives us key information while being darkly funny.
This is a stylized film. French pop music fills several transitions, and the closing credits are among the coolest I’ve seen in a while. (Although opening credits in both movies and TV have largely gone by the wayside, at least graphic artists can still have fun at a film’s end.) But there are some touches that seem out of place; for example, Emily is walking through wind and rain but emerges fashionably dry. It’s a nice statement on her character, but no other moments tweak the rules of reality to that degree.
While I enjoyed the artistry and most of the mystery, and I could watch Kendrick in just about anything, “A Simple Favor” ultimately feels weightless. As noted, it’s in the dialog-driven style of stage plays, and could be adapted into one with a few tweaks. The solution to the mystery isn’t horrible, but if you engage your brain on even a cursory level, you’ll realize the twists and turns are not plausible – not in the modern age. The puzzle is also missing key pieces, and while that didn’t cut into my enjoyment all that much, it does cheapen the mystery.
So Feig’s film is a mix of modern and old-school that can’t exist in either reality; it’s art more so than a portrayal of real people and situations – even if Lively and especially Kendrick bring those people to life. “A Simple Favor” is too short on thematic resonance to have me thinking about it much beyond this review. Fans of Kendrick and/or Lively will have a good time, but it’s closer to a trifle than a masterpiece.