Director: Paul Feig
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding
Running time: 117 minutes
After their young sons request a playdate, meek, by-the-book single mum Stephanie (Kendrick) befriends Emily (Lively): a glamourous, Martini-swilling PR Executive who doesn’t like having her picture taken. When Emily asks Stephanie to pick her son up from school one day and subsequently disappears, Stephanie embarks on a dangerous mission into Emily’s private life to uncover the mystery.
If you’re the type of person who gets annoyed when a character explicitly utters the film’s title, then it’ll take you all of 45 seconds of A Simple Favour before you’re huffing into the straw of your Tango Blast slushy. If you’re also the type of person who can’t stand channel hoppers, or Spotify skippers, then A Simple Favour will quickly become a simple chore.
That’s because A Simple Favour – adapted from the 2017 Darcey Bell novel of the same – cartwheels between genres, with more tonal shifts than you can shake a Melissa McCarthy at. Director Paul Feig, a longtime collaborator of the aforementioned star and the man behind cult favourite Bridesmaids and the recent all-female Ghostbusters re-boot, eases us into his first dabbling with the thriller genre – and his first outing without McCarthy since 2006’s Unaccompanied Minors – with a set-up that feels far more at home in a quirky, contemporary rom-com.
Full-time mother Stephanie is the type of parent you won’t find nattering at the school gates, but instead knee-deep in her meat-free meatball mixture for her son’s ‘culinary dishes of the world’ day or first in line for the school fundraiser volunteer sign-up sheet. She lives for being the absolute best mum in the world – she probably has the novelty mug to prove it, too. Emily, on the other hand, is an elegant, but foul-mouthed, city professional whose concept of the school run consists primarily of a stiff drink – namely, a Martini made the ‘London’ way – and raunchy confessions of threesomes with her husband, Sean (Golding). Upon a bed of chalk and cheese, their blossoming friendship is the ultimate mismatch.
And for a hefty portion of the film’s opening – the narrative mixer, if you will – A Simple Favour sits within familiar Feig territory. There is witty, amusingly awkward chatter aplenty and broadly-drawn, hyperbolised caricatures to boot. However, the initial concoction is given a sharp dose of something sour when Emily inexplicably vanishes, seemingly without a trace. And so begins Stephanie’s dance with the devil as she blindly delves into the life and secrets of a beautiful girl who wants, as one character remarks, “to be so invisible”.
From its Gone Girl narrative beats, to its Les Diaboliques namedrop, it’s clear to see where A Simple Favour’s influences lie. However, the film sways drunkenly from erotic, crime neo-noir, to comedy, to classic whodunnit and then back again. This is a film that isn’t quite sure what it is nor what it wishes to be, and, as a result, speeds up when it needs to slow down, and slows down when it really needs to speed up. Just like Stephanie and Emily’s unlikely companionship, Feig’s genre jig-sawing doesn’t fit together comfortably at all.
Similarly, with plausibility and character investment so often the steadfast building blocks of any accomplished and effective thriller, it’s a shame we’re asked to believe in a world where the only professional detective work seems to be sniffing out the next sarcastic one liner; where important – and probably confidential – details of a missing person case are revealed and explained via a ‘handy tips for the home’ vlog; and children happily slurp down green, ‘Hangover cure’ smoothies.
Despite Kendrick and Lively – the latter, in particular – applying themselves admirably in their respective roles, there’s very little they can do to drag the film back from its thinly drawn plot, generic character stereotypes (there’s a trio of snarky, gossip-obsessed parents thrown in for good measure) and question marks in all the wrong places.
Feig and co. are clearly having a blast here. Perhaps too meta for its own good, A Simple Favour, sadly, lacks any meaningful substance.