Joyce Glasser reviews A Simple Favour (September 21, 2018), Cert. 15, 117 min.
Any film that stars Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively and the new Crazy Rich Asians sensation Henry Golding, has something going for it. But A Simple Favour has more. It is a solid comic noir that suffers from an inconsistent tone and unhinged ending, but is otherwise fresh, unpredictable and a lot of fun. It is also female-centric, with some cracking lines, but without the toilet humour and an over reliance on the ‘F’ word that are the tiresome trademarks of Melissa McCarthy. Why bring up Melissa McCarthy? Because the director of A Simple Favour is Paul Feig, the director of Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and Ghostbusters, all of which starred McCarthy. These films are also about female empowerment, and Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick) goes on quite a journey.
Widow, attentive mother to Miles (Joshua Satine) and small-time food blogger Stephanie does not date, looks like a nerd and compensates for a hole in her life – or perhaps some past guilt – by turning herself into a selfless volunteer. She makes meatless Swedish Meatballs for International Food Day at school and as she bursts into the school room with her retro clothes: blouse, cardigan, pencil skirt and coloured socks with animal designs on them, she approaches the sign-up list in her son’s school for yet another good cause. Before she can sign up a teacher implores her not to volunteer for anything more as other parents have not had a chance.
Having no friends, Stephanie shares her life with her blog followers, most of which are her neighbours and fellow school parents who listen in just to make fun of her behind her back. Stephanie’s first blog opens the film: ‘My best friend Emily asked me a simple favour a few days ago, to pick up her son from school. She’s a wonderful, elegant person. Our sons brought us together.’
There might be an old fashioned murder mystery buried within this sunny suburban setting, but scriptwriter Jessica Sharzer (who has adapted Darcey Bell’s novel A Simple Favour), has devised a novel cinematic technique to suggest there’s more going on than meets the eye. As Stephanie smiles to the camera in her kitchen with this mundane statement about her new friend, we get the real version of events in a kind of simultaneous flashback, as though she is reliving the encounter with Emily just as she reinterprets it for her audience. The minor adjustments that we see indicate that even the most ordinary, or perfect people have dark secrets.
After failing in her attempt to volunteer, Stephanie collects Miles at school and finds that he has a new friend, Nicky (Ian Ho). Miles asks his mother if Nicky can come over to play. Before Stephanie can say, ‘you’ll have to ask your mommy,’ a Porche swerves into view and out steps a spiked high-heel followed by a long leg and eventually a statuesque body in a pin-striped suit saunters over to Nicky. As she approaches, Stephanie is dazzled by her long blondish mane and confident beauty.
Mum is the Director of PR at Dennis Nylon, a rival of Tom Ford, and never volunteers. ‘No play-date,’ she says, I have a date with some anti-depressants’.
The gossipy school parents serve as the Greek Chorus in the film, continually commenting on the action. ‘Emily is going to skin Stephanie alive’, they predict, and it looks like they are right.
Stephanie is in thrall to Emily and finds herself accepting an invitation to go to Emily’s spacious, stylish, minimalist home for an afterschool cocktail. She is overwhelmed by the décor (and taken aback by a crude, nude painting of Emily, complete with a close up of her private parts). Stephanie admits that since her husband was killed in a car crash, she scrapes by on his life insurance money which will soon run out. As Emily shows Stephanie the secret of the perfect martini, and the two get tipsy, Emily wonders how Stephanie can survive being so good. ‘I’m not that good’, Stephanie mutters and Emily suggests they trade confessions.
Emily claims that she and her husband had a threesome with his teaching assistant. Stephanie, very reluctantly, begins a tale of the prodigal half brother who returns home and ends up kissing Stephanie in the basement. As Emily probes, a flashback makes it clear that the estranged half-brother and Stephanie make passionate love. Fast forward and Stephanie is married, and this same half-brother emerges with just enough familiarity to enrage the husband.
Emily also confesses that the family are in serious debt. Emily’s husband, Sean (Golding) is an English teacher who wrote one book, Darkness at Dawn’ but then stopped writing. Stephanie lights up: she not only read the book but loved it.
When Sean returns home the intimacy between the two embarrasses Stephanie who becomes invisible. Stephanie tells Sean that his novel reminded her of Thackery, which impresses Sean. ‘I was an English major at Barnard. I did my thesis on the Canterbury Tales,’ she explains, awkwardly mumbling some lines to prove her claims. To her amazement, Sean continues the quote before Emily, somewhat alarmed but making a joke of it, bursts the bubble.
The next day as Stephanie is struggling with a crate marked MMAH (Math Mothers Assisting the Homeless), Emily calls to ask if she could take her up on her offer to pick up Nicky after school. Nicky prepares dinner for the children and when Emily does not show up she puts the two boys to bed. After two days, she contacts Sean who tells Stephanie that Emily frequently takes off when Nicky is in good hands. But after two days, they notify the police. In their hour of need, the two households merge, with Stephanie producing gorgeous meals for Sean and the boys. She even ventures to try on one of Emily’s gowns. And when the police claim to have found a body in a lake, Stephanie finds herself a suspect.
The tradition in male movies from North by Northwest to The Fugitive is for the suspect to turn detective to clear his name. So Stephanie takes to the road and involves her blog viewers in the intrigue. Her followers soar in number.
In the film’s second half the winning humour disappears and the film changes tone so dramatically it’s like we are watching another movie. And in the final fifteen minutes, the plot overstretches itself, not only straining credibility but turning rather silly. Despite this reservation, the cast ensures that the entertainment factor is pretty high.
Or maybe Stephanie just can bear the truth. The two friends both have secrets, only some of which are revealed when Emily invites Stephanie over after school for the perfect martini.
You can watch the film trailer here: