A Simple Favor is a delightfully twisty psychological thriller with compelling performances, and much of Paul Feig’s humor, but little substance.
In 2014, David Fincher adapted Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl novel for the big screen to great effect. The psychological thriller was a critical success, earning Fincher and the film’s stars a number of awards and accolades. Since, Hollywood has attempted to tap into the female-driven mystery thriller for additional success, like 2016’s The Girl on the Train, though none have reached the same heights as Gone Girl. Now, comedy director Paul Feig (Ghostbusters, Bridesmaids), who’s known for helming female-fronted stories, tries his own hand at the mystery drama genre with his latest project, A Simple Favor, based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell. A Simple Favor is a delightfully twisty psychological thriller with compelling performances, and much of Paul Feig’s humor, but little substance.
A Simple Favor follows Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a stay-at-home mom who spends much of her time volunteering to help out with her son Miles’ (Joshua Satine) class at school or vlogging parenting tips. By chance of their sons being friends, Stephanie meets fellow mom Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), an elegant, enigmatic and aloof PR executive who works in New York City, commuting from their suburban Connecticut town. Over gin martinis, Stephanie and Emily bond, telling each other about their lives and sharing secrets. One day Emily asks a simple favor of Stephanie, to pick up her son Nicky (Ian Ho) from school. However, Emily never comes to get Nicky and stops responding to Stephanie’s texts and calls.
Worried, Stephanie calls Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding), who’s away visiting his mother, and even Emily’s job in the city, but she can’t track down her best friend. Stephanie and Sean grow closer as the police begin searching for the missing Emily. After some time – and with help from the viewers of Stephanie’s mommy vlog – the police conclude their investigation and Stephanie and Sean are left to deal with the fallout. However, Stephanie begins to think the case around Emily’s disappearance isn’t as resolved as the police believe, and she starts digging into Emily’s past. With someone as secretive as her best friend, it’s unclear if Stephanie will ever truly know Emily – but that knowledge is key to understanding what’s going on in modern day and discovering why exactly Emily asked Stephanie for a simple favor.
Directed by Paul Feig from a script by Jessica Sharzer (Nerve, American Horror Story), A Simple Favor is like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train before it, in that it offers a suspenseful psychological thriller that taps into women’s experiences through its main characters. In the case of A Simple Favor, Stephanie and Emily are radically different women with vastly different life experiences, but they share a bond over the fact that each harbors secrets they feel they can’t ever tell anyone. Those secrets provide the basis of many twists throughout the nearly two-hour runtime of A Simple Favor – and, to be sure, there are plenty of twists in this movie – but not all are necessarily surprising.
The psychological thriller genre is arguably defined by its twists. Does a film’s climactic reveal subvert expectations? There’s a delicate balance to pulling off twists and revelations, setting them up just enough so that they make sense and feels earned, while not giving away anything too early. Unfortunately, A Simple Favor plays out using many tropes of the genre, and those who have seen a few psychological thrillers will know what’s coming much of the time. Other revelations in A Simple Favor fail to land simply because the characters aren’t well developed enough to earn those twists or meant-to-be-shocking turns. There are moments that will surprise or shock viewers, especially if they’re able to turn off their brains and enjoy the ride. But more often than not, A Simple Favor walks a well worn path and doesn’t often subvert expectations.
Further, the film’s focus on twists and revelations takes away from its ability to truly develop its characters and their relationships. At the core of A Simple Favor is the friendship between Stephanie and Emily. Thanks to Sharzer’s script and the direction of Feig, the relationship between the two women is easily the most compelling aspect of A Simple Favor. Kendrick and Lively have a great deal of chemistry, which allows the dynamic of the characters to pop off the screen, especially as it begins to evolve following Emily’s disappearance and Stephanie’s investigation into her friend’s life. For his part, Golding is solid as Sean, but the script doesn’t give him much to do beyond go along with whichever woman is in his life at the moment (though that’s no doubt intentional and a key aspect of his character). A Simple Favor is, for the most part, focused on these three – although Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack and Aparna Nancherla bring some much-needed comedy to the movie as fellow parents – and the trio of Lively, Kendrick and Golding offer necessary depth to their characters.
Altogether, A Simple Favor is entertaining enough to keep viewers engaged for the full two-hour runtime, though the constant twistiness in the third act begins to get a little exhausting. Further, the movie seemingly wants to say something of substance about the nature of female friendships, but it’s too mired in the thrills of its mystery to get any kind of message across. Instead, A Simple Favor is more in the vein of pulpy psychological thrillers – it’s a fun ride, with enough depth to the characters to get somewhat involved in the storyline, but doesn’t truly offer any insights into the human experience. Of course, that’s perfectly fine for a light, summer thriller, which is exactly what A Simple Favor is.
A Simple Favor is a darker work for Feig, but it’s still got his sense of humor and the female-driven nature of the narrative will be familiar to the director’s fans. As such, A Simple Favor is perfect for fans of the filmmaker, especially if they’ve always hoped he’d dive into a less healthy but still complex female relationship. Beyond that, A Simple Favor will be entertaining for those who were intrigued by the trailers and want to see Kendrick and Lively play off each other. But, while A Simple Favor is fun enough, it’s not necessarily a must-see entry in the psychological thriller genre. Certainly, it doesn’t reach the heights of Gone Girl, but it also aims to be something slightly different, which is commendable – even if A Simple Favor doesn’t completely pull it off.
A Simple Favor starts playing in U.S. theaters Thursday evening September 13. It runs 117 minutes and is rated R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence.
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- A Simple Favor (2018) release date: Sep 14, 2018