by Peter J. O'Connell
A Simple Favor. Released: Sept. 2018. Runtime: 117 mins. MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use, and violence.
A Simple Favor is a dark and delicious confection, combining comedy and mystery in the sunny suburbs of Connecticut. You might say that it's the cinematic equivalent of some of the combos that Stephanie Smothers prepares for her internet followers—chocolate-chip cookies with gazpacho, baked goods with origami. Speaking of origami, the plot of the movie, directed by Paul Feig, from the screenplay of Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, has folds and twists like that of the Asian art form.
Who's Stephanie Smothers? Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a widow with a young son. She lives on the insurance of her late husband and a little money from an online “vlog” on which she shares recipes, arts and crafts info, and housekeeping and childrearing advice with her minuscule group of followers. Chirpy and perky, Stephanie wears Gap cardigans and animal-print socks bought at Target sales and is a compulsive volunteer at her son's school.
At school Stephanie's son is friends with the son of Emily Nelson (Blake Lively). Emily seems the opposite of Stephanie. She drives a Porsche, has a power p.r. job at a Manhattan couture house, and sashays around in a sultry manner wearing pinstripe suits and stilettos like a femme fatale out of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
When Stephanie suggests that she and Emily arrange play dates for their sons, Emily replies: “I already have a play date with a symphony of antidepressants.” But she does agree and, surprisingly, starts inviting Stephanie to her ultra-modernistic house. There the fashionista schools the perpetually mousy nerd in the art of never having to say you're sorry: “Baby, if you apologize again, I'm going to have to slap the sorry out of you.”
Emily proceeds to introduce Stephanie to the delights of ice-cold martinis (made from the gin of a company actually owned by Blake Lively's husband) and Sapphic kisses. Said kisses, however, do not deflect Emily from hot make-out sessions with her handsome hunk husband, Sean (Henry Golding, the handsome hunk boyfriend from Crazy Rich Asians), that take place in front of Stephanie.
The two women, seemingly so unlike, bond by sharing secrets. Emily's deal with such things as threesomes. Stephanie's secret, however, is actually more shocking. It's never fully elucidated in the course of the movie, but with its suggestion of a dark dimension to Stephanie, it adds intriguing flavoring to the story.
What the film focuses on are the secrets that have to be unraveled after Emily asks Stephanie to do “just a simple favor.” The favor is to pick up her son after school and look after him—Sean is out of town—until Emily comes back late from dealing with an emergency. The problem is, Emily doesn't come back, and no one knows where she has gone.
At this point, the movie begins to shift from sly satire of suburban life to neo-noir territory. Amusing apercus continue to ripple through the film and amusing situations to pop up, but familiar tropes from classic thrillers of the 1940s and 1980s make their appearance, as does material reminiscent of several recent films.
Anyway, Stephanie sets out to find out what has happened to Emily—and to “comfort” Sean, in bed. The helicopter parent becomes a sleuth, sort of an older Nancy Drew or a younger Jessica Fletcher. Of his missing spouse, Sean says: “She's an enigma, my wife. You can get close to her, but you never quite reach her. She's like a beautiful ghost.”
This “ghostliness” doesn't deter Stephanie. She begins her search by posting pictures of Emily, which lead some catty neighbors to sneer: “Any excuse to use a stapler.” Soon Stephanie is sneaking through apartments and offices, breaking into filing cabinets, doing things that she never thought she would—or could—do. One hilarious sequence involves Stephanie's penetration of Emily's office, where she encounters the boss, haughty fashion designer Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), who tells her: “Never wear a vintage Hermes scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily's friend, you'd know that.”
As Stephanie shares her sleuthing online, the number of her followers skyrockets. Eventually, the police make a grim discovery that they think resolves the issue of Emily's disappearance. Stephanie is not satisfied, however, and continues her by now compulsive probing—to a startling conclusion. It's a conclusion that seems to confirm her saying: “Secrets are like margarine—easy to spread, bad for the heart.”
A Simple Favor is quite witty, and not a little weird. But it is a dark delight with terrific performances, of different types, by its talented trinity of leads, particularly Kendrick. The plot has some issues, but director Feig brings out the chemistry among his cast. Do yourself a favor and see this movie!
“Footnote” to the film: A Simple Favor somewhat echoes the title of 1998's rural noir A Simple Plan, but otherwise has little in common with that well-regarded film.