The box office disappointment of Ghostbusters and the associated online dick swinging may have dented the confidence of another director. But Paul Feig’s breezy comedy doesn’t seem to have been diluted or drowned-out on the evidence of his follow-up, A Simple Favor: a vitriolic noir thriller with the nervy precision of a Gillian Flynn novel and the sweet, boozy decadence of a champagne afternoon tea at The Ritz.
Anna Kendrick’s fantastically-named Stephanie Smothers is a widowed single mother who devotes much of her time to a blossoming vlog: a cheery interactive cross between a copy of Domestic Sluttery and a dry brunch. Her initially tiny cabal of online devotees is distracted by recipes for smoothies and tips on making friendship bracelets, but the vlog’s popularity explodes when she begins to drag her sensational personal life into it.
It seems her best friend of a few weeks, but best friend nonetheless, Emily (Blake Lively) has gone missing with no trace of her whereabouts. The enigmatic and pristinely-dressed Emily works in a high-pressure PR role for a fashion designer, rocks around in a Porsche and lives in a vast mansion garlanded with explicit paintings. She seems to be living a perfect existence and one in contrast to Stephanie’s rather more modest stay-at-home life, so her disappearance comes as a shock to Stephanie and the army of keyboard warriors being dragged along for the ride.
Her followers immediately point the finger of suspicion at Emily’s husband, a one-time author and floundering English professor Sean (Henry Golding); although Smothers is warier of Emily’s boss: a ludicrous walking peacock of a man who seems to be utterly nonplussed at her disappearance. Smothers is on the case, keeping her followers abreast of details as she sleuths through a mystery involving duplicity, secret identities and impeccable footwear.
Perhaps its strangest attribute is also its most appealing: tone. Tonally this seems, at first glance, to be a bit of a mess; an ill-fitting combination of tawdry airport crime paperback and half-drunk cattiness. Watching A Simple Favor, one is relieved and frankly amazed to realise that the definitive pub quandary has been ultimately settled: what if Danny La Rue had directed Gone Girl? Initially, the uneven mixture of neo-noir and hardboiled crime along with diatribes about frocks and melodramatic day drinking feels a bit jarring, like director Paul Feig couldn’t settle on a movie so decided to direct three or four. Give it time, though, and the plot begins to work hard, twisting around itself to provide something that doesn’t stint on shocks. Eventually, it loses itself down a rabbit hole of improbability reminiscent of the final twenty minutes of Wild Things, but after a limp start, the machinery of the plot lifts itself into top gear and never seems to slow down. It’s a ludicrous romp, but at its best it romps along ludicrously.
The keystone is a pair of performances in Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick that pack meat on the sugary bones of the humour and make the misdirection feel significant. Lively is glamorously intimidating as the unknowable high-flyer, bombarding Kendrick’s domestic queen with passive-aggressive humour. Kendrick is so innately entertaining I feel I could probably watch her read the menu from a Pizza Express. She’s a perfect fit for the regularly cheerful Stephanie and brings a kind of fizziness to the movie that works well amidst the narrative twists and helps gloss over the occasional misfiring comedic cutaways.
Dir: Paul Feig
Scr: Jessica Sharzer
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Rupert Friend
Prd: Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson
DOP: John Schwartzman
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Runtime: 117 minutes