‘I’ ON CULTURE
Paul Feig, the director of A Simple Favor, decided to go Hitchcock in his latest film. There are many touches that remind us of the great director, but the real suspense is never there. As a result, we have an elegant, classy movie that is enjoyable but not brilliant. However, it has a really good cast that covers up a few plot holes through enormous charm.
Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a supermom, a widow who runs a v-log (for those not up on modern parlance, this means that she has a video show running more or less daily on the internet) focusing heavily on “mommy things,” like cooking. She lives in her own world enough that she has no idea that she has become a bit of a weird creature to fellow parents through her rampant volunteerism. Then one day while picking up her son (Joshua Satine) from the first grade, she also talks to his best friend there (Ian Ho) and meets the boy’s mother, Emily (Blake Lively), who is just about everything Stephanie is not. She is loud, profane, glamorous and very funny.
In a short time, Stephanie has a new best buddy. She can admire Emily’s gorgeous husband Sean (Henry Golding), a one-time novelist now teaching at a local community college. She has house envy for the spectacular home her friend lives in and all her fabulous clothes. We have classic opposites, and Emily quickly gets Stephanie drunk and talking about secrets. We learn that Emily and Sean are basically broke despite their lifestyle, and Stephanie reveals some darker secrets. Then one day, a few weeks after they met, Emily asks Stephanie to pick her son up from school. She will be late, and Sean is in London. That is the “simple favor” of the title. Emily does not return, and Stephanie calls Sean in from London after a couple of days. The police are a bit skeptical, but then the games begin.
Things careen out of control. Stephanie is determined to find out what really happened, which frustrates the local police detective (Bashir Salahuddin). Emily is reported dead. Sean and Stephanie get inappropriate, which causes not only gossip, but brings attention to them from the police. And then things get really strange.
What makes the movie work is the excellent cast. Kendrick’s Stephanie has adorable quirks (although she has used them before), but she is not what might be a typical woman in the center of all of this. She is quietly very attractive and clearly she knows it. Lively is the opposite. Feig knows how to set up the glamour look from the first time we see her getting out of a cab in the rain, and the camera flows up from high heels through a really long leg in a fancy (and obviously expensive) pant suit. We then see her umbrella closing, and a model’s face under a cute hat. She is crude and fun. Even knowing that she is the designated “bad girl” for the film, she is fun to watch. Golding is really good as the husband who seems caught up in his wife’s dominance while quickly falling in love with Stephanie. He is appropriately studly but makes his character far more interesting than might be the case.
There are a few smaller roles that really help. Salahuddin manages to steal the few scenes he is in. Sujenja Sri as a receptionist is hysterical as she robotically answers phones while staring at a waiting Stephanie. Linda Cardellini is strong as a really weird artist with anger issues, and the wonderful Jean Smart as Emily’s mother is as marvelous as ever. A special salute should also go to Emily and Sean’s house, an architectural and design masterpiece.
The action kept us involved all the way through. There were quite a few twists and turns as we wound up going through all of Stephanie’s travails trying to figure out what happened to the woman she thinks of as her best friend, who she realizes has so many secrets that she is not even close to the woman she believed she knew. But Feig keeps things moving. Given more time, we might well have figured out more of the secrets. But it proved to be a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.