Synopsis: Stephanie, a mommy vlogger, attempts to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s sudden disappearance. (Adapted from IMDb)
Review: How well do you know your friends? A Simple Favor twists adult friendship and motherhood into a dangerous concoction of secrets, lies, sexual liaisons, and perfect gin martinis. Based upon Darcey Bell’s debut novel, A Simple Favor explores the dark underbelly of human psychology. Thematically similar to Gone Girl, this film takes a more satirical look at the murder mystery genre. While a gorgeous movie to watch (the French music added a great exotic element), the cinematography choices felt more akin to something the Lifetime Network would produce. Feig, a comedy director, seemed to struggle with whether he wanted to make a satirical murder-mystery or an arthouse black comedy. The end result falls somewhere in between.
The delightful Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie, a widowed mother who fits the textbook definition of helicopter parenting. To fill her time between school volunteering gigs and mothering Miles (her son), Stephanie maintains a rather creepy “mommy” vlog watched. The intentional over production of her vlog adds a nice dimension to her perfectionism streak. Stephanie’s husband, Davis, and half-brother, Chris, died in a car accident, and leaves unclear which one is Miles’ father (the book answers this question). As a single mother, Stephanie struggles to connect with other women and has few friends. Enter Emily, the exotic, high-powered mother of Nicky, Miles’ best friend.
Portrayed by Blake Lively, Emily is a statuesque, stiletto-clad fashionista who presents a cool, prickly demeanor to the world. Emily looks down on everyone and makes sure they know her opinion. The rather homely Stephanie struggles to understand why such a glamorous individual would deign to invite her home for drinks. Stephanie wears 10-pack animal-print socks from Target and Emily struts around in couture, hardly a Best Friend match made in heaven. Blake Lively is the only actress whose wardrobe I actively covet. She always looks amazing and does not disappoint in this film. The masculine inspired suit look does not look good on most women, but Blake pulls it off effortlessly. Her wardrobe mirrors the feel of the movie: cool, polished, but with a rotten surprise in the middle.
Plot wise, the twists where definitely different than the ones presented in the book. Narrative wise, the story follows the one in the novel fairly closely except for the ending. I think the movie has a more realistic ending than the novel. One of the biggest changes is that Emily and Sean (her husband, played by Henry Golding) financially struggle. In the book they have a lot of money and Sean works on Wall Street, not as a failed novelist turned literature professor. However, this change did add another layer of depth to Emily’s behavior. Golding, the lead actor from Crazy Rich Asians, struggles slightly with this role. This is only his second role in a film, ever, and the lack of acting experience makes him come across as slightly wooden. I would have liked to see some more depth of emotion in some of his scenes, especially in the ones where Emily sexually manipulates him. But I think Golding will grow into a great actor, he has the looks and the style, now he requires more experience to work on effectively emoting.
When Emily still disappears several days after asking Stephanie to watch Nicky (the “favor” in the title), things take a sinister twist. This results in Stephanie playing amateur sleuth and tapping her mommy network to search for clues. Using her vlog, Stephanie starts sharing the story of Emily’s disappearance and viewership starts spiking. Desperate for clues, she ends up visiting Emily’s office and runs into the haughty fashion designer Dennis Nylon, played with over-the-top flair by Rupert Friend. Then the police get involved and start turning everything on its head. Emily turns out to have a dark past and everyone realizes how little they actually know her.
A neighborhood of fellow-stressed out parents (Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla and Kelly McCormack) function as a pseudo-Greek chorus. They represent the middle ground of parenting between super mom Stephanie and the cool Emily. Bashir Salahuddin portrays the world’s most affable detective, in the book this character was an insurance adjustor. His exposition is interspersed with Stephanie’s vlog entries. The backgrounds where Stephanie films provide a subtle commentary on her emotional state. Kendrick nails the sickly-sweet/naïve personality.
My biggest complaint with the movie lies in the screenplay. It dragged in the middle and did not keep the revelations tight enough. Most of Lively’s dialogue involved liberal doses of the F-word, which rather diluted her supposedly glamorous and sophisticated exterior. In my opinion, the excessive swearing did not add much to the character. Modern films seem to equate female “viciousness” with vulgarity and the result always feels disingenuous. The Emily in the movie is actually more unlikable than the version in the book.
Overall, A Simple Favor works due to the acting talent of Kendrick and Lively. They play against type and their chemistry works. I think the film falls short on the whodunit angle. Even people who did not read the book could probably figure out the ending well before the big reveal in the third act. Feig needed some tighter pacing in order to make the narrative more climatic. I hope Kendrick and Lively team up again in the future.