Friday, September 14, 2018

The Mommy Vanishes: "A Simple Favor" a deliciously stylish comedy stirred into a twisty mystery


A Simple Favor (2018)
117 min., rated R.

Based upon the 2017 novel by Darcey Bell, “A Simple Favor” is a wickedly sharp and stylish female-driven comedy stirred into a twisty suburban mystery that makes for a deliciously entertaining page-turner in film form. Director Paul Feig (2016’s “Ghostbusters”) knows exactly what he’s doing, confidently helming a sparkling script by Jessica Sharzer (2016’s “Nerve”) with slick, chic flair and juicy, bewitching performances delivered by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. For a film built on a mystery that inevitably switches course, “Gone Girl”-style, it still manages to surprise in how it gets there. Despite the cosmetic similarities to David Fincher’s much darker and more twisted adaptation of a novel about a missing woman, “A Simple Favor” offers its own tone and pleasures as an enthralling, deftly funny, snazzy-looking treat.

Perky and task-oriented, widowed single mother Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a mommy vlogger with a web series on making baked goods and crafts, while raising first-grader son Miles (Joshua Satine) in Warfield, Connecticut, and so involved in his school that she volunteers for everything. When Stephanie picks Miles up from school and meets his friend Nicky’s (Ian Ho) mother, Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), the fashionable but brash and edgy mother invites them both over for a playdate. As Emily starts happy hour early in the day by serving up a few cold martinis, both moms drink, swap their innermost secrets, and instantly form an unlikely friendship. One day, Emily calls up Stephanie, asking for “a simple favor,” to pick Nicky up from school, while she has a fashion PR “work crisis” in Miami and her husband, Sean (Henry Golding), is in London to visit his mother in the hospital. Days go by and Stephanie cannot reach Emily, and when Sean returns to the states, he finally files a missing person’s report. Is Emily’s disappearance just another one of Emily’s impulsive runaways from her life, or is she gone for good? Stephanie is on the case.

As cunningly conceived as the storytelling is, “A Simple Favor” remains zingy and fizzy like a Paul Feig-directed comedy does, only with ‘60s French pop songs and a lot more visual panache. Once Emily goes missing, the film becomes a noir story of deception, infidelity, and murder in the most classic sense, albeit with a trickier tonal balance to go with its deviously constructed plotting. There is not only more to Emily than meets the eye, as Stephanie's sleuthing blows the lid off who her drinking buddy and fellow secret-sharer really was, but there is more to Stephanie as well. How the film goes about solving its puzzle-like mystery is far from simple, and with every peeled layer of the proverbial onion, the amount of twists becomes knotty and disorienting, almost in the vein of “Wild Things,” but that’s all part of the fun.

Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively make potent, dynamic co-leads as Stephanie and Emily, polar opposites but so distinctly drawn as individuals who shan't be underestimated. Kendrick is a delight, as she is wont to be, bringing not only a go-getter effervescence but also enough layers to make Stephanie an interesting and sympathetic conduit into this mystery. From pre-missing Emily pulling candid emotions out of her (not to mention a big shameful secret) and telling her to stop apologizing all the time, Stephanie seems to take on her new friend’s unapologetic attitude and uses it in her favor when she goes hunting for clues that could help her solve Emily’s disappearance. For instance, when Stephanie takes a trip to Emily’s workplace, Kendrick uses her ace, rapid-fire comic delivery in an indirect back-and-forth with a front-desk receptionist and when putting Emily’s Tom Ford-wannabe boss (Rupert Friend) in his place. As disparate as their characters are, Lively is Kendrick’s perfect equal, stretching her talents with an acerbic, take-no-prisoners wit that comes naturally in her repartee with Stephanie. As Emily, she is private, enigmatic yet open and racy with a zero-fucks-to-give attitude, and it's fun to watch Lively relish such a multilayered role. There are several supporting turns that pop, like Henry Golding (2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians”), as Emily’s college professor husband Sean; Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack and Aparna Nancherla, as the gossipy trio of parents at Stephanie and Emily’s kids’ school; Bashir Salahuddin (2017’s “Snatched”), as the suspicious Detective Summervile; Linda Cardellini, as edgy artist Diana from Emily’s past; and Jean Smart, as Emily’s mother, but it is clearly Kendrick and Lively who own the film.

“Are you trying to ‘Diabolique’ me?” Stephanie asks at one point, paranoid that she is being gaslighted, and it’s one of many savvy touches in the knowing noir make-up of “A Simple Favor.” Even take the amusing sight of an umbrella blowing across a parking lot as the statuesque Emily makes her dramatic slow-motion entrance that tips off the heightened tone director Paul Feig nails and keeps embracing. Along with that, Feig proves to be quite the visual stylist here with the aid of cinematographer John Schwartzman and costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, whose contrasting choices for both Stephanie and Emily say a lot about their characters. Enjoying “A Simple Favor” is as simple as drinking a gin martini with a lot of twists.

Grade: B +

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