Paul Feig is a strange animal. Freaks and Geeks is classic television, Bridesmaids is certainly popular even though I couldn’t quite get into it, and I’m probably one of the eight people in the world who saw Other Space, and I really, really enjoyed it (I’m still over here waiting for Karan Soni to really and truly break out). Never was Paul Feig’s eccentricity more clear to me than in the recent (all-too-brief) resurgence of The Soup under the Netflix banner as The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale. Feig, who was a producer of TJMSWJM, appeared in every single episode. There was a lot that was . . . off about TJMSWJM. The Soup‘s recurring characters appeared organically as part of sketches and happened to reappear only if there was a reason or they struck a chord with the audience, while TJMSWJM seemed to be forcing new characters onto the show without any rhyme or reason and segments like “That Happened,” while occasionally funny, were completely tone deaf about who the show’s demographic was and who they wanted to appeal to. If there was one element of The Soup that I would have forsaken when rebooting, it would have been the once-per-episode celebrity appearances; TJMSWJM actually compounded this problem, as each time Feig appeared on screen, the show ground to a halt (although I did get a kick out of him using the money gun in the finale). I like him, I think that he has a great sense of humor, and you’d be hard pressed to find a white man in the business who is so consistently and effectively using his privilege to promote women in the industry, but I also feel that he has the problem that some comedians I know personally have, which is an inability to recognize when something doesn’t quite work. In short, I’m not sure that Feig knows how to kill his darlings.
A Simple Favor is one of his least uneven films. There are still some comedic moments in it that feel very out of place; the worst offender in the film comes at the conclusion, when a comic bit of action happens and a very minor character reappears to say a terrible line, which is then followed by several much-better lines from our main characters. It stands out because, for the most part, the comic timing in the film is pretty perfect, but when it clunks, it clunks hard, in a way that is more noticeable than in some of his other work since this one is much more intricately plotted.
Widowed single mother Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a mommy vlogger whose son Miles befriends his classmate Nicky, which leads to Stephanie entering into an unequal friendship with Emily Nelson (Blake Lively, giving the best performance of her career). Emily is the PR manager for a fashion house that is run by your standard fashion mogul type, and her ultramodern home, huge income, hands-off parenting, hard drinking, and high fashion conflict with Stephanie’s tendency to commit to every school event, her recognition that her late husband’s insurance money will soon run out, and her felt-and-pompom arts and crafts aesthetic (although she does wear this cat study Anthropologie apron, which I recognized because don’t ask, so she’s more “Hollywood broke” than “real world poor”). Emily’s husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians‘s Henry Golding) is a failed writer who teaches at a local institution, although Stephanie read his only novel as part of her book club years before. As their friendship grows (at least on Stephanie’s part), Emily elicits a dark secret from Stephanie under the guise of compassion and interest before asking her to pick up both boys one afternoon. Then Emily . . . disappears.
The police initially suspect Sean, but his alibi is solid. When evidence starts to point toward suicide, Stephanie refuses to believe it and launches into her own investigation, winding into and out of the lives of such disparate people as Sean’s T.A. (Melissa O’Neil, who I’ve been sorely missing since the unfortunate cancellation of Dark Matter), a painter who was once Emily’s lover (the ever-wonderful Linda Cardellini), and Emily’s dementia-afflicted mother (Jean Smart, always a pleasure). Her investigation leads her to the offices of fashion magnate Dennis Nylon, a Christian summer camp, a burned-out wing of a formerly glorious mansion, and even Emily’s gravesite. Emily–if that’s even her name–was not who she seemed to be. But then again, maybe Stephanie isn’t either . . .
Multiple reviews of A Simple Favor have drawn comparisons to the 2014 thriller Gone Girl, and with good reason, especially given that the film’s marketing seems to place it firmly in the largely humorless thriller genre (if there’s any way to describe Gone Girl, “humorless” is pretty high up there on the list). What appears to be taking audiences by surprise is A Simple Favor‘s comedic lightheartedness amidst all the sociopathy, implied and explicit violence, half-incest, debatable paternity, and arson. There’s a lot going on, but it’s never overwhelming, and if you’ve ever seen one of these movies before then there will be revelations that will lead you say, “Oh, I know where this is going,” and then the film promptly goes there. Regardless, there are still a few surprises buried in its bones, and the performances are strong enough to carry the film even when it seems to be simply following the outline of thrillers of this ilk. As noted above, this is probably the first film in which I’ve really been thrilled by a performance from Lively; I know that her shark movie was well received around these parts, but after Oliver Stone’s Savages I had no interest in another Lively vehicle. She’s really dynamic here, and it’s fantastic.
The only real problems in the film are the moments in which the comedy doesn’t land. Unfortunately, it’s the more ostentatious (and dare I say more Feigian) humor that thuds lifelessly on screen, and unfortunately those moments are more memorable than the praiseworthy subtle humor that’s woven throughout. Still, the actors and the French pop music lift the film when the plot starts to flail, and it would be a mistake to let this curiosity slip into obscurity without giving it a watch.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond