Incest, insurance scams, lesbian undertones, murder, scheming housewives, sexual jealousy – no I am not describing a sleazy 90s Paul Verhoeven film. However, one would be forgiven for thinking so as that is very much the sandbox Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy, Ghostbusters) is playing in with his new left-field thriller A Simple Favour.
Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie, a single mom who makes a living live-streaming cooking videos to Youtube. In very To Die For (another 90s flick with a femme fatale) fashion, the character’s posts function as narration for the film. Her life is turned upside as she bonds with Emily (Blake Lively), a glamorous but mysterious fellow mom, after the two arrange a play date for their children.
Emily has a well-paying job, a seemingly great husband (played by Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding) and an immaculate wardrobe – making her the envy of all her son’s classmates’s parents. However, as Stephanie grows closer to her, she realises all is not right. It isn’t long before Emily goes missing, plunging Stephanie into a Gone Girl-esque mystery.
Feig is no Verhoeven in the sense that he lacks the directorial chutzpah to represent cinematically the extreme states of minds of the characters. His filmmaking is point and shoot, whereas one wants dutch angles, intricate camera work and more colour. However, coming from a comedy background, what he (along with Jessica Sharzer’s razor sharp script), brings is tons of seriously strong jokes and a layer of winking humour.
There’s a sense he and Sharzer know that what happens in the Darcey Bell novel on which A Simple Favour is based is ridiculous and are ready to embrace that. Unlike the similar airport read adaptation The Girl on a Train, there is no pretense that this is a serious thriller. For most of the running time, Feig and Sharzer just keep upping the double-crosses, intrigue and insanity – so much so it’s a miracle the film only descends into broad comedy in its final act.
It helps that Feig has assembled a strong cast whose performances universally feel both in the real world – to keep one invested – but slightly heightened – so that one buys the absurd turns the plot makes. Andrew Rannells (a scene stealer for many years in Girls) is fantastic as the only man in the moms’ crew, serving as almost the Greek Chorus. Rupert Friend (Homeland, Agent 47) has fun as the camp ‘Tom Ford knock-off’ for which Emily works. GLOW’s Bashir Salahuddin projects effortless cool as the detective investigating the disappearance.
However, A Simple Favour belongs to its two central women. Anna Kendrick manages – against all odds – to be believable as a hard-working downtrodden single mom, despite always looking fabulous and spending a lot of time baking. Thanks to the actress’ naturalism, one buys how Stephanie changes and grows as she becomes increasingly entangled in the central mystery and the craziness swirling around her.
Meanwhile, Blake Lively has never been better. In a similar way to what Feig did with Melissa McCarthy in Spy, he weaponises her strengths as a performer – beauty, charisma, seductiveness – and places her in an odd but stangely perfect vehicle for her talent. Emily is a role which enables Lively to do wear absolutely stunning clothes and be charming – what she has done in the past playing fundamentally good characters in films like Cafe Society or The Shallows. However, here she is the villain – the Catherine Tramell or Amy Dunne-type, using these qualities to take what she desires. While A Simple Favour as a movie doesn’t reach the heights of classics like Basic Instinct or Gone Girl, Lively is just as iconic as those movies’ stars.
A Simple Favour is out now