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Non-Review Review: A Simple Favour

At one point around the two-thirds mark of the film, an insurance claims investigator offers a recap of all the twists and turns of A Simple Favour to that point. “It’s bananas!” she observes.

She’s not wrong. A Simple Favour is modern film noir with a pitch black sense of humour, populated with two femme fatales and driven with an infectious enthusiasm. It is not a parody or a deconstruction of the genre, but instead a demented celebration. This is a film that revels in the tropes and the conventions of these sorts of layoured labyrinthine narratives, processing all the sharp turns and wacky reveals with an eager (and effectively disconcerting) smile on its face.

Picture perfect.

A Simple Favour often feels like an extended homage to the work of Gillian Flynn, filtered through the lens of Paul Feig. This combination works very well, going down like the kind of martini served in a freezing glass with ice-cold gin. Both Flynn and Feig share an acerbic sense of humour, and tendency to pick at the gender roles usually assigned by society. A Simple Favour might share some of its DNA with Gone Girl or Sharp Objects, but it also feels like the vicious and biting younger sibling of Bridesmaids or Spy.

A Simple Favour does suffer a little bit from the comparisons to Flynn’s work, and occasionally veers slightly too far into broad comedy, but it is powered by a sophisticated charm threaded with a pitch black sense of humour.

Red flags.

As with any twisty film noir narrative, to discuss the plot in any real detail is to give too much away. Any plot summary would inevitably emphasise certain storytelling elements and gesture in the direction that the plot might unfold, which robs the narrative of some of its topsy-turvy and twisty charm. Running just under two hours, A Simple Favour is crammed full of reversals and betrayals, sudden reveals and shattered assumptions.

At its most basic, A Simple Favour is the story of an unlikely friendship between Stephanie Smothers and Emily Nelson. Stephanie is “mommy vlogger”, an enthusiastic single mother who invests all of herself in the performative act of being a mother; she signs up for every activity at school, always has something to provide for the bake sales, and documents all of her top-notch notch mothering a series of video logs that provide essential information on everything from “last-minute brownies” to “friendship bracelets.”

Shaken and stirred.

Through her son, Stephanie strikes up a relationship with Emily. Emily is much less of a performative mother than Stephanie, much less enthusiastic in embracing her responsibilities. Emily is the head of public relations at a major fashion house, but it very quickly becomes clear that there’s something not quite right with her. As Stephanie and Emily grow close to one another, the two women discover that each is more complicated – and perhaps more dangerous – than the other had imagined.

To be fair, a lot of the finer details of the story, and the twists contained therein, are fairly conventional. Indeed, the plot could easily have been assembled from a collection of classic murder mystery psycho-sexual thriller clichés. A Simple Favour doesn’t just owe a lot to the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock or the work of Gillian Flynn, it enthusiastically embraces the kind of wacky pulpy narrative beats that can be traced back to the storytelling conventions of gothic novels.

The mystery will be addressed.

However, the key is not so much the ingredients. Instead, it is how they are put together. The film suggests as much in the short snippets of Stephanie’s video blogs, which offer instructional advice on how best to combine familiar elements for optimal results. A Simple Favour isn’t a laugh-a-minute comedy, but it is very wry and very cheeky. The film understands and embraces the absurdity of its internal logic. It doesn’t take the audience out of the film by pointing out the ridiculousness, instead leaning in with a demented grin.

A Simple Favour benefits greatly from its two central performances. Blake Lively is perfectly cast as the glamourous and oh-so-perfect arch professional woman with a host of deeply personal dysfunctions, a much sharper twist on the sort of archetype played by Rose Byrne in Spy. Lively is convincing as a character with a practiced disinterest in the world around her, capable of cutting remarks delivered in the perfect off-hand manner. However, there’s also faint traces of something much less controlled bubbling away behind that cold stare.

Toast of the town.

Anna Kendrick is similarly effective as the seemingly more innocent and naive lead, one who seems incapable of having a single unpleasant thought. “How are you still alive?” Emily idly ponders during one conversation with Stephanie. It is to Kendrick’s credit that she so skilfully suggests something fractured and demented lurking beneath that exterior. A Simple Favour is a story of two people who have cultivated somewhat simplistic and archetypal veneers to cover the more deeply screwed up personalities simmering beneath the surface.

Paul Feig keeps A Simple Favour relatively low key. The film is not as stylised as Spy, never embracing the cinematic language of the psychological thriller in the same way that Game Night embraced the stylistic sensibility of David Fincher. Feig is much more interested in his cast than in his genre, trusting the script to set the mood more than camera angles or editing. Feig is a director who works very well with his performers, and A Simple Favour works in large part because of the trust that he imbues in them.

Blake’s very Lively.

There are moments where A Simple Favour veers too far towards the conventions of a studio comedy, smashing out of the confines of the clockwork thriller that the premise demands. This is perhaps most notable with the supporting cast, particularly the role creditted to “… and Rupert Friend.” As Emily’s fashion designer boss, Friend feels like a character that escaped from Bridesmaids and Spy. The character is a broadly drawn cliché, but one who doesn’t belong in this type of story.

There are a few moments like that dotted throughout film, when A Simple Favour goes for a big laugh when a small chuckle might do. There is a joke about marijuana at the climax that feels like it belongs in a completely different script, which undercuts (and perhaps even contradicts) a much more effectively pitch black punchline that literally arrives only three minutes later. However, these tonally awkward moments are the exception rather than the rule.

Just a couple of problems.

Feig keeps A Simple Favour running, embracing the bizarre twists and sharp turns with an enthusiastic eagerness. There is enough plot here to power three or four films, which becomes part of the charm. A Simple Favour hinges on the dynamic between its two lead characters, but is propelled by a sense that there is so much story contained within the two hour runtime that the film might burst. Some of the most engaging moments in the film come when A Simple Favour heightens an already ludicrous set-up, and then puts a cherry on top of it all.

A Simple Favour is a wonderful genre exercise. It’s not quite a parody, but it’s also not a straight-up thriller either. It exists somewhere in the hazy grey area between those two classifications, and is all the better for that.

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